Food poisoning is an all too common malady. Practically everybody reading this has either personally contracted a case or know somebody that has. The recent headlines about E-Coli represent food infection and that has been covered previously and information is available on our web site.
We all have perceptions and ideas about where you get food poisoning. Mostly we think about far off places. The most commonly known location to contract a beautiful example of this disease is Mexico but let it be known that it can and does occur all over the world and even in your home town or your home. One year while waiting over night in Saskatoon on the way for a November White tail hunt, we decided to brave the cold and leave the hotel for a fine dining experience. We inquired from the front desk staff of the Saskatoon Inn where would be one of the nicest places to get a dinner in their city. Without reservation, we were sent to an apparently well known restaurant. The place was gorgeous with great food, an inviting atmosphere and pleasant staff. Dinner was excellent and the four of us returned completely stuffed and ready for sleep.
Gratefully I was not in Paul’s room. Within a couple of hours after leaving, Paul became violently ill with the dreaded nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Knowing what it was and not fearing the worst, the rest of a party showed the kind of empathy only found by three grown men on a hunting trip. Even Paul can laugh now, but at the time the humor was lost entirely for him. Lasting 12 to 24 hours this did not impact his hunt, but Paul was more than a bit peeked by morning. Luckily, we carry a small emergency room with us and rapidly administered the treatment Paul needed to shorten the horrible state he was in. The hunt went on as planned and we all ended up with great Bucks but with a very good lesson. You can catch food poisoning even in the finest restaurants.
There are many types of contaminated food and water diseases. For the sufferer the distinction between a food infection and food poisoning is seldom on your mind as you clutch the porcelain bowl. However for the practitioner these are vastly different situations. Food poisoning is the result of ingesting food products tainted with toxins produced by microbes and often these relatively harmless microbes themselves. Food infection is the ingestion of food products containing dangerous microbes that do their dirty work once inside the body. Examples of food infection include the aforementioned E-Coli outbreaks, Salmonella in poultry, and more exotically, Trichinosis from eating infected pork.
With food poisoning all your symptoms come from a toxin or poison produced by microbes living and multiplying in the food itself (the one exception being a virus discussed below). These toxins attacking your digestive system by various mechanisms, cause you to have uncontrolled nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. Although these symptoms usually last no more then 24 hours, they can be intense. After the illness has run its course, you are dehydrated, and often have an electrolyte and acid/base imbalance resulting in an absolute drained feeling. Fever is not common and significant fever (>101 F ) strongly suggests something else is going on.
Classically food is simply “left out too long” and bacteria that would normally exist on the food multiply. In this scenario, the number and type of bacteria would be of no consequence to those who consume the food right after preparation, but woe unto those who eat it later! A common example is a food like potato salad that is eaten after a few hours in the sun on a picnic or fishing trip. Harmless at first, bacteria multiple as the refrigeration fades and produce the toxin as a by-product of their growth. Consumed later, the food is now laden with a tasteless poison. Once in the digestive tract the toxins begin to work immediately and the symptoms start within a very short period of time, a matter of hours.
Alternatively, improperly prepared food comes laden with sufficient numbers of pathogenic bacteria so that time out of the frig is not an issue. Once ingested they multiply and rapidly produce the poison. The same disturbing symptoms occur, but the process takes a little bit longer (generally 12 to 24 hours) to get started but feels the same awful way.
Treatment is strictly supportive. Antibiotics are of no help. The best thing to do is to use over the counter Pepto alternating with Imodium for the diarrhea and cramps. Treat the nausea with medications like Phernergan or Zofran. This will enable you to keep up with the fluid loss. Lots and lots of Gatorade are important to riding this out in the best shape possible. One way to tell if you are replacing your fluids adequately is that if you are not producing large quantities of urine despite drinking large quantities of Gatorade, you are falling behind in the race to stay hydrated.
As always, to avoid getting any of these in your system, prevention is the key. The most important thing is to make sure all your food is cooked well to at least 212 degrees. The causative strains of bacteria and their toxins are heat resistant which means they can survive high temperatures but they all perish at 212 degrees thus the recommendation. Other prevention is to refrigerate the food thus preventing any remaining bacteria from multiplying. Also avoid keeping perishable foods for long periods even in the frig, avoid allowing foods to stand at room temperature for several hours, cook to 212 degrees or boil for 15 minutes when reheating food, avoid raw foods, thoroughly clean all kitchen equipment after contact with raw food, be careful with sponges and towels as they get contaminated easily and are used on everything. Lastly, one teaspoon of bleach in one quart of water will disinfect any countertop.
Finally not to leave out the viruses, there is one that has become infamous recently on the cruise ships but is common otherwise. The Norwalk virus causes the same symptoms as above and lasts for one to two days and is treated the same way but the difference is that it causes the intestinal problems itself and doesn’t use or need a toxin. Here is the main issue with this nasty little bug. It is spread by contact. Another words, all which is needed is for someone who is infected to touch a railing, door handle or countertop followed by you who also touches the same object. The next part is the critical step, you then touch your mouth or touch something that you then put into your mouth and you are now infected. Lest you think that is uncommon, rubbing your eyes will cause minute quantities of tears to run into throat and there you are. This ease of contact explains why in enclosed areas such as cruise ships this Norwalk virus can spread like wild fire. Also simply kissing someone who is infected will definitely make you a victim. The prevention is easy once you know the cause (by the way, escalator handrails at airports fall into the category of possibly contaminated). That is why the cruise ships have hand washing stations everywhere now and crews that do nothing but wipe down all railings, door handles, countertops etc.
We all go on vacations and hunts of all sorts and do so to enjoy ourselves. These intense, brief and non-lethal illnesses will put a huge damper on your good time if you are the other guy. So remember, a little prevention goes a long way. Enjoy the outdoors and be safe.