Foodborne illness, which affects more than 75 million people a year, is caused by toxins, parasites, viruses, and especially bacteria — including salmonella, E. coli, and staphylococcus. Children, whose immune systems are not fully developed, are at high risk for serious complications, as are pregnant women and the elderly. But some simple precautions can help keep your family safe. Here's what to know:
Food poisoning starts anywhere from an hour to three days after eating tainted or undercooked food. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, and fever. Here are some red flags to watch for.
Common food-poisoning culprits include the following:
What it could be: Staphylococcus aureus
What to do: Have your child rest and drink plenty of water. You can also give him a hydrating solution such as Pedialyte. But if he develops a fever above 101.5°F or has difficulty keeping water down, you should call the pediatrician.
What it could be: Salmonella
What to do: Give your baby plenty of water, and call your pediatrician. Because food poisoning can be more dangerous in babies than in older children, take her to the doctor if she has more than two episodes of diarrhea or vomiting, especially if she shows signs of dehydration (dry mouth, rapid heartbeat, or reduced urination).
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What it could be: E. coli O157:H7, shigella, or salmonella
What to do: Take your child to the pediatrician as soon as possible; the doctor can take a stool sample to see what's making her sick. Bloody diarrhea is a sign of serious infection. Don't give your child an antidiarrheal medication, which can make her sicker.
What it could be: Botulism
What to do: Botulism is rare, but it has a high fatality rate if not treated immediately and properly. Get your child medical attention right away, especially if he has eaten honey, which is often the culprit in babies. If left untreated, botulism can lead to paralysis or respiratory failure.
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Listeriosis, a type of food poisoning that's 20 times more likely to affect pregnant women than other adults, can result in premature delivery, miscarriage, or stillbirth if left untreated. If you have flulike symptoms such as fever, vomiting, diarrhea, or muscle aches for more than 12 hours after eating, call your gynecologist. The bacteria that causes listeriosis is found in soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue cheese, and queso blanco; lunch meats; unpasteurized milk; and pates and other meat spreads. Avoid these foods if you're pregnant.
Some fish may contain high levels of mercury, which can damage an unborn baby's nervous system. Avoid eating shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel. Freshwater fish such as salmon, pike, and trout could also be tainted, so check with your state or local health department.