When a hardworking, but exhausted, New York City realtor spied a festive-looking plastic tray of cut-up fruit in a store’s deli section, she reached out, picked it up, and looked it over carefully. She remembered reading something about not buying cut-up fruit but she didn’t remember exactly what it was. Besides which, the fruit looked good — even watermelon and cantaloupe. And this was the store she always shopped in, and the people behind the deli counter were always so friendly.
Into the cart it went. When she got home, she opened it and excitedly showed it to her husband. Does it look OK to you, she asked. He picked it up and gave it a sniff test. Looks and smells fine to me, he said. That assured her, but in the back of her mind, she wondered about what she had read about not buying cut up fruit.
At supper, she ate almost all of the fruit and declared it delicious. Her husband had a few pieces.
Late at night, she woke up feeling sick. She ran into the bathroom with what she immediately realized was a severe case of diarrhea. Worse yet, she started vomiting. While still on the toilet, she picked up the nearby trash can and started vomiting into it. Her entire system was exploding. It scared her. To make matters worse, she was experiencing painful cramps. What could it be? Was she dying?
Her husband told her not to worry, that it was nothing more than an upset stomach. The stomach flu, perhaps. But the diarrhea and vomiting wouldn’t stop. Nor would the cramps.
She wanted to call her doctor but it was late and night, and it was Saturday. Besides which she knew he was on an overseas vacation with his family.
When morning came, she was still feeling miserable but managed to get dressed and ready to walk around the corner to an urgent care facility. But diarrhea hit again and she had to turn back. But later that afternoon, she did manage to get there.
She told the medical provider that she thought it was the cut-up fruit she had eaten. But he said it would be hard to say what it was. But he did recommend the BRAT diet — bananas, rice, apples and toast. But when she got home and googled it, she found that some physicians caution that the BRAT diet does not alleviate diarrhea and can actually cause individuals to have diarrhea for longer periods, according to randomized clinical trials.
She called the grocery store where she had bought the fruit and asked to speak to the manager. He told her he had had no complaints from any customers. When she told him how sick she was and suggested he throw out all of the cut-up fruit, he told her he was too busy “to deal with this” and hung up on her.
So much for that. She was exhausted and decided to take the Urgent Care medical provider’s advice and get plenty of rest and drink a lot of fluids. She did exactly that for 2 days and began to feel better. But she felt drained, both physically and emotionally, by the entire experience.
Several days later when she called a friend and told her about how her digestive system had “exploded,” her friend told her it could have been a foodborne pathogen, perhaps E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria or norovirus. And she explained that any of these pathogens could have gotten into the package of cut up fruit in various ways. The person handling the fruit, for example, might not have washed his or her hands before cutting it up. Or perhaps the cutting board had been used for something like meat and not washed off before being used to cut up the fruit. Maybe the knife that was used to cut up the fruit hadn’t been cleaned. Or maybe the fruit, itself, had come in with pathogens on it.
Or maybe it wasn’t even the fruit.
Once again she turned to Google and quickly discovered that she probably would never know what germ had invaded her system mainly because some of the foodborne illnesses had the very symptoms she had experienced. But her friend told her the vomiting and diarrhea had been her system’s way of getting whatever the pathogen that had been in her out of her, which is why a person shouldn’t take medicine to stop the diarrhea, unless recommended by a doctor.
She was scared and confused.
Some advice about what to do
Seek medical help as soon as possible if your symptoms are severe. Examples would be dehydration, prolonged vomiting and diarrhea, stomach pains, nausea and/or a fever over 101.5 degrees F.
Food safety attorney Bill Marler said that in many cases, doctors hedge their bets and jump to the conclusion that it’s norovirus, often referred to as a “stomach bug,” and that it will usually pass. Norovirus is the leading cause of vomiting and diarrhea, and foodborne illness in the United States.
Even so, Marler said that a patient can always ask for a stool culture to be done.
“I would push for that,” he said. “It’s good practice for doctors to order them.”
He pointed out that if the “bug” that has caused the problem turns out to be a reportable foodborne disease, such as E. coli, listeria, Salmonella, norovirus, or hepatitis, then the health department can take the necessary steps to determine what caused it and then, if enough cases have been reported, issue a recall.
Marler said that’s very important because a recall can help prevent other people from becoming ill.
Marler also said that in the case of children under 5, adults over 65, or anyone whose system is immunocompromised (in cancer treatment, for example), “You can’t mess with these infections.”
According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.
More than half of all foodborne outbreaks in the United States are associated with restaurants, delis, banquet facilities, schools, and other institutions.
Advice from the Mayo Clinic
Here’s what to do to prevent dehydration and reduce symptoms at home when you are recovering from a foodborne illness:
° Drink plenty of clear liquids: water, clear sodas and broths, gelatin and juices. But steer clear of apple and pear juices, caffeine and alcohol.
° Avoid foods such as dairy products, fatty foods, high-fiber foods or highly seasoned foods, which can make the symptoms worse.
°When you start feeling better you can go back to your normal diet.
What to do if seeking medical help
°Write down any symptoms you’re experiencing, even any that might seem unrelated to what you’re experiencing.
° Write down key personal information, which would include any international travel or recent life changes.
°Take along a list of all medications, including vitamins or supplements, that you’re taking.
°Take along a family member or friend, who will be able to help you remember what the medical provider said.
°Write down questions to ask the medical provider.
°Record any foods eaten in the past 7 days.
°Save the receipts, if possible.
°If any of the food you suspect turns out to be the problem, save some of it (if possible) in case the health department asks for a sample. But keep some of the sample.
°Use the Internet to tap into iwaspoisoned.com, which may have some information about other people near you who have gotten sick.
Go here (https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/prevention.html) to learn how to prevent coming down with a foodborne illness.
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