Avoiding gastrointestinal illness

Count yourself lucky if you’ve never gone from feeling a bit queasy after having lunch to spending a miserable day (or two) camped out in the bathroom. Could it be something you ate (that hamburger looked undercooked!) Or is it a case of “stomach flu”?

Count yourself lucky if you’ve never gone from feeling a bit queasy after having lunch to spending a miserable day (or two) camped out in the bathroom. Could it be something you ate (that hamburger looked undercooked!) Or is it a case of “stomach flu”?

To clarify some terms, there is actually no such thing as stomach flu. That’s just a general nonmedical term for gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the digestive tract and intestines caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Foodborne illness is the more accurate term for what many of us refer to as food poisoning.

“It can be tough to tell whether you have food poisoning or gastroenteritis, since the symptoms can be so similar,” said Dana Dougherty, M.D., family medicine physician with Norton Community Medical Associates – Dutchmans. “Typical symptoms for both of these common conditions can include nausea, vomiting, watery diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramps, and fever.”

One way to figure out what is making you sick is to look back at what you’ve eaten in the past six to 12 hours. Likely culprits for foodborne illness include cream-based foods, mayonnaise-rich dishes, meats that may have been undercooked, and raw sprouts or vegetables (and you thought the salad bar was a healthy option).

The usual time frame for problems to show up as a result of eating tainted food is four to six hours. However, symptoms can show up as much as 24 hours later, or even well beyond in some cases. If more than one member of your family or group is having symptoms and you all ate the same foods, food poisoning is a likely suspect.

The bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli), salmonella, campylobacter and listeria, along with norovirus (Norwalk virus) account for many foodborne illnesses each year nationwide. The worst type of E. coli is a strain known as E. coli O157:H7.

“This is the E. coli that makes the news when serious large-scale outbreaks occur,” Dr. Dougherty said. “It can lead to possible kidney failure and even death, especially among those who are very young, elderly or chronically ill.”

Foodborne illness generally lasts from a few hours to several days. Most of the time, the only treatment is managing symptoms until the sickness runs its course. However, antibiotics may be prescribed if the illness is caused by a bacterial infection. No matter the cause, here are a few tips to help speed along your recovery:

  • Drink lots of fluids. That may be easier said than done, but you want to avoid getting dehydrated, which could lead to needing IV fluids.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Eat bland, easily digestible foods for a few days, such as the BRAT diet — bananas, rice, apples and toast.
  • Use over-the-counter medications for relief of nausea and diarrhea as needed.
  • Wash your hands often and well to avoid spreading germs.

How do you know when it’s time to get professional care at one of Norton Healthcare’s 12 immediate care centers or six emergency departments? Seek immediate medical attention if you are:

  • Still sick after 48 hours, are passing blood or have a fever over 102 degrees
  • Having symptoms of dehydration, such as excessive thirst, dry mouth, little or no urination, severe weakness and dizziness
  • Experiencing neurological symptoms, such as blurry vision, muscle weakness, tingling in the arms or seizures

Proper food handling is the single best way to avoid foodborne illness. Wash your hands before handling food. Use an antibacterial cleanser to clean surfaces that come in contact with food. Use separate utensils and cutting boards or surfaces for vegetables and raw meats. Keep foods at proper temperatures (40 degrees or below for cold items; 140 degrees or above for hot ones.)

If you suspect food poisoning after eating out at a restaurant, report it to your doctor and to your local health department. If you happen to have some of the food in question — a doggie bag, perhaps — it may be helpful to provide some of it so it can be tested to identify the specific agent responsible for your illness.

“Reporting potential food poisoning can help us spot any trends or specific problem spots if others are reporting similar illness,” said Dave Langdon with the Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness. “It can also be important in helping to tell if a local issue is linked to a wider or nationwide outbreak.”

It’s easy to jest about a condition that can have your body in an uproar, but foodborne illness is no joke. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 1 in 6 Americans, or roughly 48 million people, are sickened each year from food poisoning. More than 128,000 people require hospitalization, and sadly, about 3,000 people die each year because of foodborne illnesses.

So the take-away here is eat well, and be sure you eat to stay well too.


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