By Becky Billingsley
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012, Myrtle Beach – A common myth says people can’t become ill within one hour from eating contaminated food, but they can and do.
Foodborne illnesses can make people sick anywhere from 30 minutes to 72 hours after eating infected food, and anyone who thinks they’ve “eaten something bad” will never forget the feeling. Although usually people who become ill with foodborne illnesses don’t seek medical attention, each year a significant number become sick enough to require hospitalization.
Julie Schlegel, a foodborne epidemiologist who works for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, says the most common symptoms of foodborne illness she and other DHEC staff see in South Carolina are vomiting and/or diarrhea. Many people don’t seek medical attention and recover on their own, but of the people who do go to the doctor and get tested for suspected foodborne causes, salmonella stands out as the No. 1 culprit.
However, while the salmonella could have come from food, that isn’t always the transmission medium.
“It is often hard to say if the illness is caused by eating a contaminated food or by having contact with another ill person or animal,” Schlegel said in response to e-mailed questions. “Each year DHEC receives report of approximately 1,500 salmonella cases.”
Nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year about one in six Americans (48 million people) become ill, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 people die as a result of foodborne illnesses.
And nationally, salmonella ranks second in the number of annual foodborne illnesses at 11 percent of all cases, or a little more than 1 million people. Across the United States, it is norovirus that strikes vastly more of the population, accounting for an estimated 58 percent of all foodborne illnesses, or almost 5.5 million people each year.
The other three foodborne pathogens in the CDC’s list of the top five culprits are clostridium perfringens (10%), campylobacter (9%) and staphylococcus aureus (3%).
So what should someone do if they suspect they’ve become ill from food purchased at a restaurant, grocery store, farmers market or other source?
Julie Schlegel says consumers can file an on-line food complaint at the DHEC Web site (CLICK HERE), or they can call their local DHEC Environmental Health Office (CLICK HERE). She adds that if the person is sick enough to require medical care, they should see their physician and “…be vigilant about hand washing to protect loved ones from becoming ill.”
When DHEC receives a food illness complaint, a staff member attempts to call and interview the person.
“We ask information about the suspect meal as well as other foods/activities during the 72 hours prior to illness,” Schlegel said. “Additionally, we cross check our system to see if any other people have filed a complaint on the same establishment. A food inspector may be sent to the establishment for follow-up depending on the information in the complaint/interview.”
Here is a quick synopsis of the five leading causes of foodborne illnesses, with links to more information.
Norovirus, according to the CDC, is extremely contagious. It is spread by contaminated food or water, touching contaminated surfaces or directly from an infected person. Symptoms can begin 12 hours after exposure, but usually they appear in 24 to 48 hours.
The method of transmission is from the stool (feces) or vomit from an infected person, so washing hands, vegetables and fruits are extremely important in preventing its spread, along with ensuring all seafood is thoroughly cooked.
People can be contagious even before they feel sick and up to two weeks after they feel better, but they’re most contagious while feeling sick and for three days after symptoms clear up.
Norovirus causes acute gastroenteritis, which is an inflammation of the stomach, intestines or both, which makes affected people have stomach pain, nausea and diarrhea, and can also cause fever, headaches and body aches that may lead to dehydration. Most people recover in one to three days, which is why many cases go unreported.
People who think they may be sick with norovirus should not prepare food or care for other people who are sick, all their potentially contaminated clothing should be washed and machine dried, and potentially contaminated surfaces like food preparation areas should be disinfected with chlorine bleach solution.
Find out more about norovirus HERE.
While it is common to think of eggs or chicken that has been left out of the refrigerator too long as the main salmonella transmitters, it is found in many foods ranging from fruits and vegetables to ground beef, peanut butter and even within eggs still in their shells.
Salmonella is a natural bacterium in the intestines of animals, especially reptiles and birds. Food becomes contaminated from the stools of those animals, so salmonella can be present in or on foods even before they’re harvested from farms. Once salmonella infects humans they can also spread the bacteria, and anyone diagnosed with salmonella should not prepare food or pour water for anyone else.
After infection (called salmonellosis), people will start to feel sick within six to 72 hours, and it feels like the flu without the respiratory symptoms: fever, chills, abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and/or headache. Like the flu, salmonella infection usually lasts 4-7 days, and most people get better without seeking medical attention.
However, sometimes salmonella escapes from the intestines and gets in a person’s blood, which can cause severe illness and/or death. When a doctor is consulted and salmonella is confirmed, it’s often treated with antibiotics
Foods contaminated with salmonella don’t look or smell odd, so it is important to make sure foods are cooked to safe temperatures, all raw foods are thoroughly washed, milk and juices are pasteurized, raw meats are kept separate from other foods.
Go HERE for a full list of measures to prevent the spread of salmonella.
Commonly found on raw meat and poultry and in gravies, clostridium perfringens is a bacteria that forms spores. According to the CDC, the infection, “…often occurs when foods are prepared in large quantities and kep warm for a long time before serving.”
Symptoms strike within six to 24 hours of consuming infected food, and they include abdominal cramps and watery diarrhea. Clostridium perfringens is not spread from one person to another, and the illness usually lasts about 24 hours.
Clostridium perfringens was determined to be the cause of an illness that sickened dozens of people at a May 2009 catered event at a political gathering for Republican U.S. Rep. Henry Brown at the Myrtle Beach Area Convention Center. Read the full DHEC report on that incident HERE.
To prevent clostridium perfringens, foods should be cooked and held at safe temperatures: Read more HERE.
The most common way this bacteria can affect humans is by eating infected poultry that is raw or undercooked, or eating foods that have come in contact with these items. For example, if infected raw poultry is packaged so the juices are leaking and someone touches it and doesn’t immediately wash their hands, there is a risk of illness.
The CDC says, “In 2005, campylobacter was present on 47% of raw chicken breasts tested through the FDA-NARMS Retail Food program.”
People become ill with abdominal pain, cramps, diarrhea (possibly bloody) and fever within two to five days after being infected with campylobacter, and the sickness usually lasts a week. Many cases go undiagnosed, but campylobacter can be life-threatening if it spreads to the bloodstream. It is treated with extra fluids, or with antibiotics if the illness is severe.
Learn more about campylobacter HERE.
If you have ever become ill an hour after eating suspect food, you may have come in contact with staphylococcus aureus, a common bacterium that a quarter of all people and animals have on their skins and in their noses. However, when food workers carry it or milk, cheese or salty foods like ham come in contact with staphylococcus aureus, it can make people ill.
“Staphylococcal toxins are fast acting,” according to the CDC, “sometimes causing illness in as little as 30 minutes…after eating contaminated food.” Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, cramps and diarrhea, but normally they’re “mild” and clear up in one to three days.
People sick from staphylococcus aureus are not contagious. Prevention comes from food preparers being free of infections and wounds, washing hands before and after handling or preparing food, keeping food prep areas sanitized and observing proper food heating and cooling methods.
Learn more about staphylococcus aureus HERE.