30.MAR.2017 6 MIN READ | 6 MIN READ

If you’ve ever had an episode of food poisoning, you know how dreadful it can be – common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, headache, fever and stomach pain.

In most cases, people get better within a day or two – but in some cases, depending on its cause, delayed diagnosis and treatment can lead to severe health consequences.

Food poisoning, otherwise known as gastroenteritis, is an illness caused by consuming contaminated food. This could be food contaminated by bacteria, viruses or parasites.

Here are 5 bacteria commonly responsible for causing food poisoning, and the food they can be found in.

Salmonella

There are hundreds of different types of salmonella and not all of them are harmful to humans.

Salmonella bacteria thrive in:

  • Poultry or meat contaminated by poor food handling
  • Dairy products, including eggs with dirty shells, and unpasteurised milk and cheese
  • Juice, fruits, vegetables, spices and nuts

Campylobacter

Campylobacter is the most common identified cause of food-borne disease. Although it doesn’t grow in food, it spreads easily so a few bacteria in a piece of undercooked chicken could cause illness.

Campylobacter bacteria thrive in:

  • Poultry, red meat
  • Unpasteurised milk
  • Untreated water

E. coli

E. coli is the name of a type of bacteria that lives in your intestines and in the intestines of animals. Although most types of E. coli are harmless, some types can make you sick.

E. coli bacteria thrive in:

  • Beef contaminated with faeces
  • Unpasteurised milk and apple cider, alfalfa sprouts
  • Contaminated water

Listeria

Listeria is a bacteria present in most animals and humans. The bacteria is normally not harmful if its host is healthy. These bacteria are cold-tolerant, although growth is slow below 5°C. When eaten, it colonises the gut and then spreads to other parts of the body.

Listeria bacteria thrive in:

  • Raw milk and foods made from raw milk
  • Processed meats (eg. hot dogs, luncheon meat)
  • Unwashed raw produce

Clostridium perfringens

Shortened as C. perfringens, the infection happens most often in foods that are prepared in large quantities and then kept warm for a long time before serving. Thorough cooking may kill the bacteria but not necessarily the spores that can grow into new cells. If cooked food is not served promptly, the spores may develop into new cells.

C. perfringens bacteria thrive in:

  • Reheated gravies
  • Beef
  • Poultry

What to do if I have food poisoning

If we are healthy, our immune systems can deal with small numbers of bacteria and viruses. At higher levels, they can make us quite sick. Most cases of food poisoning are mild and the symptoms clear up in a few days. During this period of recovery, the goal is to prevent dehydration. Drink lots of liquids, but avoid milk and caffeinated beverages.

If you developed the symptoms after returning from a trip, you should consider seeing a doctor, as the cause of the food poisoning might be a bacterial infection, which is more commonly related to travel.

When to seek emergency medical attention

Although most food poisoning cases are mild, some can be serious and life-threatening. See your doctor immediately if you have:

  • Diarrhoea persisting for more than 3 days
  • A high fever (39°C and above)
  • Severe or persistent abdominal pain
  • Persistent vomiting for more than 12 hours
  • Symptoms of severe dehydration, eg. a dry mouth, passing little to no urine or having urine that’s darker than usual, dizziness, and difficulty keeping fluids down
  • Blood in your stool
  • Breathing difficulty

Those who are vulnerable, such as pregnant women, the elderly or people with poor immune systems can get very ill from food poisoning. Some cases may even be life-threatening. If you experience any of these symptoms, belong to the above-mentioned vulnerable groups, or have other serious underlying medical problems, you should contact your doctor immediately.

Reviewed by Dr Kelvin Thia, gastroenterologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital

29.MAR.2017
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Thia Teck Joo, Kelvin
Gastroenterologist
Mount Elizabeth Hospital

Dr Kelvin Thia is a gastroenterology specialist practising at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, Singapore. His clinical interests include treating complex disorders of the digestive system, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

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