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Here's help for victims of food poisoning
Dr Roopa Nishi Viswanathan
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May 30, 2005

You visited your local dhaba for lunch yesterday and thought, "The chicken tastes a little weird today."

Yet, consumed by the irresistible aroma, you gobbled it all up without second thought.

Today, you wish you hadn't. You feel feverish, your stomach rumbles and you want to throw up.

This could be a typical case of food poisoning. You might be lucky and the symptoms might subside in a few hours.

But how do you make sure this doesn't happen to you again? This is where we come in.

What is food poisoning? What causes it?

This is an acute food-borne illness that results from eating food contaminated with bacteria, toxins, parasites or viruses.

Common culprits: Poorly cooked meat, raw foods and unwashed vegetables. These harbour germs that cause food poisoning.

More often: Food poisoning occurs through contaminated meat, poultry, eggs, milk and seafood.

Common pathogens (bacteria that cause disease): Salmonella, E coli, Campylobacter, Giardia and some viruses such as Norwalk. Sometimes, eating toxic mushrooms can also cause symptoms of food poisoning.

What are the symptoms?

Different causes of food poisoning result in different symptoms. There is no fixed set of symptoms that can define the illness. Symptoms usually occur within hours of consuming contaminated food, but sometimes can even take days to manifest.

This can lead to misdiagnosis, especially because you may not be able to identify the offending foodstuff.

The typical symptoms of food poisoning are:

~ In severe cases, there might be blood in the stools and dehydration as a result of fluid loss.

~ Some exceptions like botulism (an acute paralytic disease caused by the neurotoxin, botulin, especially in food), might be present with nerve symptoms, like weakness and difficulty swallowing rather than digestive system problems.

What should I do if I have food poisoning?

Generally, symptoms resolve by themselves without any specific treatment, except in severe cases.

Keep yourself hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. Watch out for warning signs.

What are some warning signs? When should I call the doctor?

Food poisoning often needs no hospitalisation. But do seek medical attention if you have one or more of the following: 

How is food poisoning treated?

Your doctor will narrow down the diagnosis by asking you what you ate. And if others who ate the same food suffered from the same symptoms.

Sometimes, food allergies and infections can mimic the symptoms of food poisoning. In some cases, stool samples might be taken to detect the organism that caused the disease.

Once the diagnosis is confirmed, mild illnesses can be treated by increasing fluid intake, either orally or intravenously.

Bismuth subsalicylate preparations can decrease the severity of the diarrhoea.

However, avoid taking anti-diarrhoeal medications if there is high fever or blood is present in the stools because they can worsen the illness.

Do not be surprised if you are not prescribed antibiotics. Most cases are caused by viruses and will improve in two or three days.

Antibiotics do not work on viruses anyway. Mild bacterial infections too do not merit antibiotic therapy. 

Complications include kidney damage due to dehydration. This is extremely rare in cases that are picked up early.

If this occurs, dialysis might be needed until the kidneys can function normally again.

How do I prevent food poisoning?

In the case of food poisoning, prevention is certainly better than cure.

i. Always wash your hands before touching food.

Always wash your hands after using the restroom, changing diapers or handling pets as well as after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood or eggs.

ii. Prevent cross-contamination via cutting boards, knives, sponges and countertops by keeping these clean and dry.

Also make sure you clean surfaces thoroughly before preparing food on them.

iii. Wash all produce well before cooking. 

Rinse fruits and vegetables in running water to remove dirt and grime. Never defrost food at room temperature. Use the refrigerator, running water or the microwave oven.

iv. Cook food to the right temperature to ensure that illness-causing bacteria are killed. 

Put cooked meat on a clean platter rather than back on one that held the raw meat.

v. Cook eggs till the yolk is firm.

You have another reason to do this: avidin, a component in raw eggs can also prevent the absorption of biotin, an important B Vitamin.

vi. Refrigerate leftovers promptly.

Avoid letting prepared food stand at room temperature for more than two hours.

vii. Do not pack your refrigerator.

Cool air must circulate within to keep the temperature right and your food safe.

viii. Avoid cooking for others if you have a diarrhoeal illness.

ix. Packaged foods often have expiration dates. Check them before you eat something.

x. While eating out, make sure the food is hot.

As far as possible, avoid eating foods that have not been freshly prepared.

xi. Look at what you are eating and smell it! Your sense of smell might not be the best in the animal kingdom but, most often, it is sharp enough to check if something has gone bad.

xii. Don't drink unpasteurised fluids or untreated surface water.

xiii. It might be a good idea to follow the policy, 'When in doubt, discard'.

You can visit the friendly neighborhood dhabawala again (if your taste buds rule you), but make sure you look (and smell) before you eat.

Now that you have read this, you could also give him some tips on preventing food poisoning!

Dr Roopa Nishi Viswanathan has an MBBS from KEM Hospital, Mumbai, with a Masters in Nutrition from the University of Texas at Austin. She also writes for and

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