Foodborne Illness More Common than You Think

Imagine . . . an upset stomach, diarrhea, and fever. Do you have the flu? Your illness actually may be foodborne illness, not flu (a respiratory viral infection).

Foodborne illness, sometimes called food poisoning, comes from eating contaminated food. But the symptoms can easily be mistaken for other health problems. In fact, symptoms vary from fatigue, chills, a mild fever, dizziness, headaches, an upset stomach, and diarrhea, to dehydration, severe cramps, vision problems, and even death. Although actual incidence is unknown, foodborne illness may lead to a small percentage of some long-term health problems, too, including arthritis and Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Food safety and health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have estimated that seventy-six million people get sick, more than three hundred twenty-five thousand are hospitalized, and five thousand Americans die each year as a result of foodborne illness. Foodborne illnesses that result in more severe symptoms and death usually are diagnosed. However, the less severe "nuisance" symptoms more likely go unreported. While many reported cases are caused by food prepared outside the home, small outbreaks in home settings are considered to be far more common.

The ways people react to foodborne bacteria and contaminated food differ. One person may show no symptoms; another may get very ill. The reaction depends on the type of bacteria or toxin, how extensively the food was contaminated, how much food was eaten, and the person's susceptibility to the bacteria.

Anyone can be a victim of foodborne illness, but some people are at increased risk. They may include friends and families you entertain, perhaps at holiday parties or casual gatherings. You may not be aware that someone you offer food to is at high risk; always make food safety a high priority! See "Who Is at High Risk for Foodborne Illness ?" in this chapter.

Bacteria cause most cases of foodborne illnesses, usually due to improper food handling. But foods also can be contaminated by viruses, parasites, and toxic chemicals such as cleaning supplies stored near food. With proper hand washing when preparing and handling food, nearly half of all cases of foodborne illness can be prevented. (With government, industry, and consumer food safety efforts, CDC reported that the incidences of foodborne illness may be declining. But there are ups and downs.)

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