Food poisoning: What you need to know to avoid it

What is it?
Food poisoning is when acute health problems arise as a result of consuming contaminated food. Food can be contaminated with bacteria, viruses, environmental toxins, or toxins present within the food itself.

When two or more people suffer from food poisoning as a result of consuming the same contaminated food, one can speak of a foodborne disease. Often food poisoning is not confined to one person, because there is hardly a case where one person ate from a certain dish or food alone.

Symptoms & consequences

The symptoms one may have depend on what caused the food poisoning. Most commonly, symptoms are abdominal cramping, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting.

Sometimes symptoms include weakness, fever, or headache.  According to Bobby Krishna, Senior Food Studies and Surveys Officer of the Food Control Department, Dubai Municipality food poison rarely leads to death, especially not within six hours. When diagnosis is done properly and on time, food poison can be treated. The only eetiologic agent with a relative short incubation period is the Bacillus cereus. The vomiting toxin of this sort has an incubation period of 1-6 hours; the diarrheal toxin a 6-24 hours period. Both these toxins are quite uncommon. A common toxin – E Coli- has a longer incubation period of 24-48 at minimum, but can be harmful according to Suresh Menoe, Medical Director of Special Internal Medicine at Lifeline Jebel Ali Hospital. 

"This toxin can lead to fatalities, although not acutely. We receive 2-3 patients a day with this toxin. It has never led to fatalities in our hospital.”

Which doctor

Strictly speaking the doctor who is concerned with stomach-related issues is the gastroenterologist. People suffering from mild food poisoning could visit a gastroenterologist at a clinic whenever the time suits best. There are also a lot of people who never visit a doctor, and the disease will pass by after some days.

However, when the symptoms are severe it is better to visit the emergency unit of any hospital, explains Suresh. 

“Severe symptoms are when the diarrhea is experienced 2-3 times, or the vomiting repeats itself 1-2 on one day.”

In such a case time should not be wasted. Because the emergency unit is always open, this is the best option.

What should the doctor do?

There are a couple of things that should be done when a patient comes in with severe symptoms of food poisoning, explains Suresh.

First, the patient should be asked about his medical history and consumption pattern over the last couple of hours. People who have shared the meals that were consumed should be contacted, as their reaction to the food is significant in determining the cause. Then, a clinical research should be done. “Ideally this includes a blood and stool test,” explains Suresh.

According to Bobby the stool test is of utmost importance, as this test points out what toxins lie at the cause of the poisoning. “This test points out whether it is food poisoning or not. It could very well be chemical poisoning, which shows the same symptoms. This requires a different treatment.”

Bobby believes that doctors often base their diagnosis on the observance of the symptoms only, a diagnosis which will say ‘alleged food poisoning’. The patient gets discharged right away with an antibiotic cure. “We tell our ER specialists that the ideal situation is when blood and stool are tested. This happens in most of the cases,” says Suresh. “But when the symptoms are not significant, the patient might be discharged directly.”

When the lab tests are done the outcome takes about 1,5 hour to be concluded. “Based on these results we decide if the patient can be discharged or not. Sometimes he will have to stay in the hospital for treatment.

How can it be prevented?

Food poison can be caused in many ways, as food comes from many corners. However, most commonly food poisoning starts in the household.
A part of this can be explained by the hot temperatures. Bacteria grow quicker in warm temperatures and a single bacterium can multiply to a million in a few hours. Correct storage is therefore all the more important in a hot climate.

"Chilled food should be kept at less than 5 degrees C°, whereas cooked hot food should be kept warm at 60 C°," explains Bobby.  Foods such as cooked rice, meat, cut fruits, salads, desserts with milk,cream and eggs should always be held under temperature control, or they should be eaten within two hours of preparation.Moreover, cold foods like salads and desserts are considered high-risk foods, which can become unsafe very fast especially in hot weather.

"Such foods should not be left at room temperature for a long time," says Bobby.

At last the Food Control Department of Dubai Municipality advises only to buy food from licensed establishments. Street vendors or shabby-looking food selling points should be avoided, as these are likely not monitored by the inspection team.

[Image courtesy: SHUTTERSTOCK]



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