Bad Bugs: Facts About Food Safety (Part 2)

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Forty-eight million Americans get sick every year by eating contaminated food, according to a US Public Interest Research Group report. With jars of peanut butter, packages of hamburger, and bags of spinach being recalled with what seems like increasing frequency, you’d think that most of us would be in a panic about eating. But according to one survey, only 25% of us are extremely or very concerned about the safety of the food supply, while 60% of us are only slightly concerned. The reality is that we all have to eat, and it doesn’t pay to be scared to put food in our mouths. Food safety, though, is something we all need to be aware of.

Last week I highlighted a few of the heavy-hitters in terms of bacteria that can make good food go bad. This week, I wanted to mention a few other foodborne illnesses not caused by bacteria, but by other bad things: viruses.


Viral Gastroenteritis
Often called the “stomach flu,” viral gastroenteritis is an infection of the stomach and intestines caused by, you guessed it, a virus. It’s really not the flu, though. Most of us have probably been hit with a viral gastrointestinal (GI) infection at one point of another. Symptoms include the following:

• Watery diarrhea
• Vomiting
• Abdominal cramps
• Headache
• Fever (on occasion)

These symptoms set in about one to two days after you’ve been infected and they can last up to 10 days, although most of us recover after a couple of days. And for most people, a GI infection is usually not serious unless you happen to be an infant, a young child, or an older adult. The risk is dehydration in these folks. Also, people with compromised immune systems (including people with diabetes) may be at a higher risk for a more serious infection, meaning that symptoms can be much worse. Here are two of the top viruses that can keep you hanging out in the bathroom for a few days:

Norovirus. About half of the cases of gastroenteritis are caused by this virus. Common places to pick up this virus include cruise ships, nursing homes, schools, and restaurants. Norovirus is highly contagious and is usually spread in the following ways:

• Consuming contaminated foods or beverages (salads, salad dressings, sandwiches, bakery items, steamed clams, oysters, fruits, and vegetables are common culprits)

• Touching a surface or an object that have been contaminated with the virus, then touching your hands to your mouth

• Touching a person who has the virus, such as caring for someone with an infection or sharing their eating utensils

There’s no treatment for this virus. Antibiotics do no good because they only treat bacterial infections. If you have it, you need to let it run its course. You can boost your chances of avoiding this virus by practicing good hand washing (or using alcohol-based hand sanitizers when hand washing isn’t doable), washing fruits and vegetables thoroughly, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces that may be contaminated, and washing clothes and linens that may be contaminated, too.

Rotavirus. This virus is the leading cause of diarrhea in infants and children, but it can infect anyone. Infants, children, the elderly, and those with immune-compromised systems are most often hit with severe symptoms, which usually include fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. Hospitalization may be needed to treat dehydration. Here’s how you pick up this pest:

• Person-to-person spread, often via day care centers, nursing homes, and hospitals

• Consuming poorly handled food that’s likely to be uncooked, such as salads and fruit

• Touching surfaces or objects that may be contaminated (often from people who don’t wash their hands after using the toilet)

As with norovirus, rotavirus has to run its course. Drinking plenty of fluids is important with any foodborne illness to prevent dehydration. If a person is unable to keep fluids down, IV fluids (given in an ER or hospital) may be needed.

Hepatitis A
Hepatitis A is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis A virus. Hepatitis A is less serious than hepatitis B or C, but who wants it? Symptoms include fever, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, fatigue, jaundice, and itching.

You can get hepatitis A by:

• Eating or drinking food and beverages tainted with the virus, such as water, shellfish, salad, cold cuts, milk, and fruits

• Handling soiled diapers

• Working in a health-care, food, or sewage facility

• Traveling to certain parts of the world, especially Asia or South or Central America

Hepatitis A is infectious, and because symptoms can take a while (15 to 50 days) to set in, an infected person can easily spread the virus without knowing it. Fortunately, symptoms are mild in most people and recovery occurs in about one to two weeks, although it may take longer for some people. The virus doesn’t stick around in the body, either. There is no treatment, but infection can be prevented by getting the hepatitis A vaccine.

Next week: keeping bad bugs at bay!

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