Refrigeration is a modern marvel. Airplanes, automobiles, or computers are often listed as life-changing inventions. Yet the humble refrigerator’s impact might be greater. Compared to hundreds of years ago, today relatively few people die of food poisoning. Still, contracting a food-borne illness is no fun. So what are the types of food poisoning, what are its symptoms, and how long does food poisoning last?
Sick Over Food
The “summer complaint” of the 1700s wasn’t hot weather or mosquitoes. It was death––from tainted food. Although people have used various methods of food preservation including salting, cold water, and imported ice, spoiled food was an ever-present risk. Despite their best efforts, people died because of rampant bacterial infestation. The discovery of pasteurization and improved refrigeration techniques greatly reduced fatalities. Still, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every year over 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from food-borne diseases each year in the U.S. Globally the World Health Organization notes that around one out of every ten people becomes ill from food poisoning every year. Over 400,000 die.
President Zachary Taylor probably died from salmonella after eating potato salad during a festive groundbreaking ceremony for the Washington Monument. There are over 250 types of food poisoning. Food poisoning can be caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites. Some of the most common types of food poisoning are the bacterium salmonella, campylobacter, or Enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli (e-coli). While in the past spoiled food was primarily responsible, today illnesses occur after eating raw or undercooked meat and poultry along with raw fruit and vegetables––all of which have been linked to salmonella outbreaks. E. coli outbreaks have also been linked to meat, poultry, fruit, and vegetables. Less common are parasites or chemical poisoning.
For most, recovering from food poisoning is a deeply unpleasant but ultimately non-life threatening experience. Your body is doing its job––expelling the poison. This is why vomiting and diarrhea are such common symptoms. Those who are immunocompromised, however, face a far greater danger. If you fall into this category and think you have contracted food poisoning, call your healthcare provider immediately. Older adults and children are also at risk. The question of how long food poisoning lasts varies greatly. However, for most people the symptoms disappear within 48 hours. To avoid dehydration, try to drink plenty of fluids. When you can eat, start with bananas, rice, or similarly bland food. If symptoms persist for several days, if you have a temperature over 100.4 F (38 C), or if you are experiencing neurological symptoms like blurry vision, muscle weakness, or tingling in the arms, then you should contact your healthcare provider immediately.
Avoiding food poisoning means exercising care with your meals. Fruits and vegetables should be rinsed––even bagged, pre-washed lettuce. Generally, raw sprouts should be avoided. Undercooked meat––especially pork or chicken––is potentially hazardous. Use a meat thermometer and never eat chicken that is pink or stringy. Avoid eating raw eggs and raw (unpasteurized) milk. Be cautious about food purchased outside of your home. Avoid eating food left sitting beneath a service station heat lamp or sold from an outdoor cart. Use your best judgment. If the restaurant appears unclean or disorganized, consider ordering elsewhere. Safe meal preparation and careful purchases can help prevent food poisoning. If you do contract food poisoning, symptoms generally don’t last very long and usually do not cause long term health issues.
Written by John Bankston