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More on foodborne illnesses

Anyone can come down with a foodborne illness, but the elderly, the very young, those with compromised immune systems and pregnant women and their unborn children are most susceptible.

The symptoms depend on which pathogen has caused the illness, but the most common universal symptoms are vomiting, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever and chills. These symptoms might last only a few hours or prolong into several days, and the severity may range from mild to very severe.

Clostridium botulinum and some chemicals which also affect the nervous system can cause headache, skin tingling or numbness, blurred vision, weakness, dizziness and paralysis.

Foodborne illnesses cause complications such as dehydration and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), and such illnesses can lead to long-term health problems. Dehydration in infants, children, older adults and those with weakened immune systems is most serious. Dehydration comes about through loss of water caused by vomiting and diarrhea. Because water and electrolytes are critical to proper functioning of the body, severe dehydration can require intravenous fluids and hospitalization. Untreated dehydration can lead to organ damage, shock or coma. 

Signs of dehydration are intense thirst, infrequent urination, dark colored urine, lethargy, dizziness and faintness. In infants and children, dehydration is noted by dry mouth and tongue, no tears when crying, three or more hours without a wet diaper, cranky or drowsy behavior, and sunken eyes and cheeks.

Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) mostly affects children under the age of 10 and adults over the age of 60, and is caused by E. coli bacteria toxins entering the bloodstream. The toxins destroy red blood cells, which shows up in bloody urine discharge. Symptoms of HUS include diarrhea, which also may be bloody, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and fever. HUS may result in acute renal failure which is sudden and temporary loss of kidney function. HUS may affect other organs as well as the brain and spinal column. Research has shown that some children and adults who recover from HUS, subsequently develop chronic kidney problems, high blood pressure and diabetes.        

Some specific foodborne illnesses can cause other serious health problems as well. For instance, C. botulinum found in fish and seafood can paralyze the muscles of the diaphragm and lead to death. L. monocytogenes found in soft cheeses and processed meats can cause spontaneous abortion or still birth in pregnant women. Other long-term health issues associated with food borne illnesses are reactive arthritis affecting the joints, usually after an episode of food poisoning from Salmonella; irritable bowel syndrome, a condition where bloating, gas, pain and constipation and diarrhea are present; and Guillain-Barre syndrome, which is characterized by muscle weakness or paralysis that begins in the lower extremities and progresses to the upper body.

If you have signs of dehydration, prolonged vomiting and diarrhea for more than two days, severe abdominal pain, a fever higher than 101 degrees, stools containing pus or blood, stools that are black or tarry, or signs of HUS, you should see a health care practitioner immediately. The treatment needed for most foodborne illness is to replace fluids and electrolytes to prevent dehydration.

Over-the-counter medications to stop diarrhea can be helpful, but if you have bloody diarrhea you should not use these medications. Instead, see a health care professional for antibiotics or anti-parasite drugs. Hospitalization may be required to treat severe dehydration, paralysis and HUS. Other interventions to help recovery are to drink plenty of fluids, gradually re-introduce foods starting with bland, easy-to-digest foods such as rice, toast, applesauce and bananas, and avoid alcohol, caffeine, dairy products and sugar and fat until you are recovered (I would advise you always avoid such things).

Eat Safe and wash everything you eat or eat with.

• Jane Riley, M.S., B.A., C.P.T., Certified Nutritional Adviser, can be reached at, 212-1451 or


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