Food poisoning: Avoidable sickness

The term food poisoning signifies an illness which develops after ingestion of contaminated food or drinks harbouring microbes causing sickness. This could be the   result of stale or rotten food substance being consumed.  Consumption of unclean salads or raw fruits and vegetables, poorly cooked or undercooked items, consuming food in unclean dishes, are other causes of food poisoning.  It can also occur if the persons involved in cooking or serving food have poor personal hygiene.  Contaminated drinks can also cause this illness.

Infections can occur not only in individuals or small groups, and can assume epidemic proportions as in cholera.

The time for disease to manifest after ingestion of contaminated substance can range from one hour to as long as 16 hours.

Traveller’s diarrhoea is a common form of acute   diarrhoeal illness affecting people coming from western world to   other countries.  It occurs due to people being exposed to infections to which they have not been exposed to before.

The germs producing food poisoning do so by either liberating toxins in the intestines or causing local inflammation.

The illness is manifested by diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting in variable intensity. Severity of the illness depends on the quantity of   harmful substance ingested and resistance of the person.

Mild form of illness needs no treatment and subsides by itself within a few hours. Bananas have natural anti- diarrhoeal properties. Frequency of passing motions can be stopped or reduced if bananas are fed to a person at the earliest manifestation of food intoxication, provided there is no vomiting.  Ready-made oral rehydration solutions can be given by mixing the powder with boiled, cooled water.   Alternately, weak tea can be given to the sick person to be consumed in sips.  Plain water should not be given much, because water without electrolytes can cause uncomfortable abdominal bloating and even vomiting.

Hot compressions done with a lukewarm water bag or cloth are useful in relieving abdominal cramps.

If someone has severe diarrhoea or vomiting, it is urgent to replace the lost water and electrolytes, preferably by perfusions, otherwise it can be fatal.

Prevention is more important than treatment in cases of food poisoning. Utmost hygiene needs to be observed in all steps involved in cooking and eating. This ranges from cleaning raw food material, cooking well, serving with clean hands and eating food with clean hands and in clean dishes. Salads need to be washed thoroughly with hot water before being eaten.

One should take warm freshly cooked food. Some infectious germs like listeria can survive in refrigerated food. Moreover, if there are power cuts, the risks for microbes growing in the food substances kept in the refrigerator increase.

Milk and meat products carry a high risk of food poisoning if stale. Therefore, they should never be consumed unless one is sure that they are fresh and   safe.

It should be known that when one takes treatment for food poisoning, that is for the present infection only. It does not provide immunity against any infection in the future. Hence, one needs to be careful while eating, particularly eating out.

In Rwanda, the Government has implemented good sanitary practices in hotels, thus ensuring that people do not become sick after eating there. People also need to be aware of food poisoning so they can adopt and improve hygienic methods, cleanliness of food.

 Dr Rachna Pande,                                                     
Specialist, internal medicine

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