Food poisoning has hit most of us at one time or another. Maybe you were even responsible for causing it. Read this article and get some tips on how to avoid it.

An estimated 55% of food poisoning cases are caused by improper cooking and storage of foods, and 24% by poor hygiene (not washing hands before handling food). Only 3% of cases are from an unsafe food source. Keeping your hands clean while working with food is the single most important thing you can do to prevent food poisoning.

About 20 organisms can cause food poisoning. After eating food contaminated with bacteria, the bacteria multiply in the stomach and the bowels. Some bacteria give off a toxin when they multiply. As a result, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea occur. Vomiting and diarrhea are the body's way of eliminating the toxin. Although the experience is unpleasant, most common cases of food poisoning run their course without needing medical attention.

Most cases of gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea) are due to viral infections and are not true cases of food poisoning. Diagnosis of true food poisoning is difficult because the many organisms are found in different kinds of food and all have different incubation periods.

The three main bacteria cause the majority of food poisoning cases: campylobacter, salmonella and shigella. The dangerous E. coli 0157:H7, found in undercooked, contaminated ground beef and in contaminated fruits and vegetables, causes a very small number of cases. But because this strain of E. coli can cause kidney failure in children, each case is important.

Eating a substance and getting sick immediately afterwards is not the typical course for food poisoning. Most people are not aware that food eaten several days previously can be the cause of food poisoning.

Not all food poisoning organisms cause vomiting as a symptom but almost all organisms cause diarrhea. Blood in the stool is seen in several types of food poisoning and is considered a serious symptom. Abdominal cramps are common, even if vomiting is not present. Fever is infrequent but may be seen. Contact a physician if a fever or bloody stools are present.

If you are unlucky enough to have a complaint about some food you've bought, here's the best way to handle it:

> Don't eat food if you are suspicious about it.

> Speak with the supplier of the food- shopkeeper, restaurant, or whoever. Explain what the problem is and ask that they note it.

> Contact the local government responsible for the area in which the food outlet is located. Ask to speak with an Environmental Health Officer , who has the power to investigate food complaints and take action against those responsible for causing the problem. Your notification may also enable others in the community to be protected from the same problem.

> If symptoms are severe, or if the person with the food poisoning is very young, very old or immunocompromised, see a doctor as soon as possible. If you suspect a food is to blame, keep the food wrapped in the fridge so a sample can be tested.

There are three golden rules for avoiding food poisoning:

> Avoid the temperature danger zone. Bacteria thrive at temperatures between 4°C and 60°C. In ideal conditions, one bacterium can multiply to more than two million within seven hours. So store perishable food below 4°C and if you’re buying hot takeaway, make sure its been kept above 60°C.

> Avoid cross-contamination. At home, the most likely sources of harmful bacteria are raw meat and unwashed fruit and vegetables. Don’t let raw meat or juices come into contact with food that’s going to be eaten uncooked or defrosting meat drip onto other food in the fridge. Always wash your hands before starting to prepare food — and wash them again after handling raw meat.

> When in doubt, toss it out. Most food-poisoning bacteria and their toxins have no taste or smell. The smell of putrefaction is usually due to relatively harmless bacteria called pseudomonas. So it needn’t be obvious that food’s contaminated.

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