We've all read reports about undercooked chicken and pork, mayonnaise and eggs left out in the sun too long, seafood that's gone from overripe to bad. What changes these foods from delicious delights to dangerous disasters? Bacteria, that's what.
Bacteria can cause food poisoning in three ways:
- Bacteria that you ingest (in undercooked chicken, for example) can infect the stomach lining.
- Bacteria can create toxins in certain foods (such as mayonnaise left outside), and you ingest the toxins.
- Bacteria that you ingest (in eggs, for example) can produce toxins after they reach the stomach.
The end result of all of these is nausea, vomiting, chills, and extreme discomfort.
When food is left out in the sun, when meats are not cooked through, or when fish spoils, they become breeding grounds for organisms from bacteria to parasites. As the table below shows, food gone bad is bacteria's heaven—and our poison hell.
|Food Poisons at a Glance|
|Type of Bacteria||Cause||Delay Time Before Illness|
|Staphylococcus||Spoiled foods||A few hours|
|Salmonella||Undercooked foods||Eight or more hours|
|Botulinum||Badly canned foods||One or two days|
Before You Put the Band-Aid On
There are three less common food poisonings that can pack a deadly wallop. These include:
Escherichia coli: the culprit behind an outbreak of flu-like symptoms and even death that resulted from eating undercooked fast food burgers.
Bacillus cereus: a contamination often associated with fried rice!
Vibrio parahaemocyticus: a poisoning that results from bad seafood, especially shellfish.
All three of these food poisonings require a trip to the emergency room or the family doctor. Side effects include nausea, chills, flu-like symptoms, and even death.
The following sections cover these three common types of bacteria in greater detail.
It might sound like a mouthful—and it is. The most common type of food poisoning is named from the bacteria that contaminates foods such as mayonnaise left out in the sun, cream or custards that are not fresh, soured milk, and unrefrigerated meats. Those foods provide prime growing ground for the staphylococcus bacteria.
Symptoms of this type of bacterial poisoning will occur almost immediately or within only a few hours. They include nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, and weakness.
The best treatment for staphylococcal poisoning is patience. The symptoms will usually clear up (and out) within a few hours. During that time, make sure the ill person is comfortable and near a bathroom. Do not give him or her any pills or medication, but you can give water if it's requested.