Foodborne Illnesses - Causes, Symptoms and Complications

What are foodborne illnesses?

Eating food or drinking beverages contaminated with bacteria, parasites, or viruses is the cause of foodborne illnesses. Harmful chemicals can also lead to foodborne illnesses if they consume contaminated food during harvesting or processing. Foodborne illnesses can cause a number of symptoms that range from an upset stomach to more serious symptoms, including diarrhea, fever, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and dehydration.

Causes of foodborne illnesses

Harmful bacteria is the most common cause that lead to foodborne illnesses. Some bacteria may be present on foods at the time of purchase. Raw foods acts as the most common source of foodborne illnesses because they are unsterile. Contamination occurs during growing, harvesting, processing, storing, shipping, or final preparation of a foodstuff. Sources that produce contamination varies as these foods are grown in soil and can become contaminated during growth or through processing and distribution. Contamination may also occur during food preparation either in a restaurant or a home kitchen.

When the food is cooked and left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours, bacteria can multiply quickly. Most bacteria grows undetected because they do not produce a bad odor or change the color or texture of the food. Freezing food may slow or stop bacteria’s growth but does not destroy the bacteria. The microbes become reactivated when the food is thawed. Refrigeration also can slow down the growth of some bacteria. Thorough cooking is needed for destroying the bacteria.

Symptoms of foodborne illnesses

In most cases of foodborne illnesses, symptoms may resemble intestinal flu and may last a few hours or even several days. Symptoms can range from mild to serious and include

• abdominal cramps

• nausea

• vomiting

• bloody diarrhea

• fever

• dehydration

Risk factors of foodborne illnesses

Some people are at great risk for bacterial infections due to their age or an unhealthy immune system. Young children, pregnant women and their fetuses, and older adults are at very great risk.

Complications of foodborne illnesses

Some micro-organisms, such as Listeria monocytogenes and Clostridium botulinum, cause very serious symptoms than vomiting and diarrhea. They can cause spontaneous abortion or death.

In some people, especially in children, hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) can result from an infection by a particular strain of bacteria, E. coli O157:H7, and can lead to uremia (kidney failure) and death.

HUS is a rare disorder and affects primarily children between the ages of 1 and 10 years and is the leading cause of acute renal failure. A child becomes infected after consuming contaminated food or beverages, such as meat, especially undercooked ground beef, unpasteurized juices, contaminated water; or through contact with an infected person.

The most common symptoms of HUS infection are vomiting, abdominal pain, and bloody diarrhea. In 5 to 10 percent of cases, HUS develops after 5 to 10 days of the onset of illness. This disease may lasts from 1 to 15 days and may lead to death in 3 to 5 percent of cases.

Other symptoms include fever, lethargy or sluggishness, irritability, and paleness or pallor. In about half the cases, the disease progresses and causes acute renal failure, in which case the kidneys are unable to remove waste products from the blood and excrete them into the urine.

A decrease in the levels of circulating red blood cells and blood platelets and reduced blood flow to organs may lead to multiple organ failure. Seizures, heart failure, inflammation of the pancreas, and diabetes can also develop. However, most children may recover completely from HUS.

A Doctor's assistance is needed if the child has any of the following symptoms with diarrhea:

• High fever with a temperature over 101.5°, measured orally

• Blood released in the stools

• Diarrhea that lasts for more than 3 days

• Prolonged vomiting that leads to dehydration

• Signs of severe dehydration which include dry mouth, sticky saliva, decreased urination, dizziness, fatigue, sunken eyes, low blood pressure, or increased heart rate and breathing rate

• Signs of shock, i.e. weak or rapid pulse or shallow breathing

• Confusion or difficulty in reasoning.

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