Keeping Kids Healthy
By Drs. Sally Robinson and Keith Bly

Foodborne illnesses are caused by germs or harmful chemicals we eat and drink. Most are caused when certain bacteria, viruses or parasites contaminate food.

Others occur when food is contaminated by harmful chemicals or toxins. Since these infections or chemicals enter the body though the stomach and intestines, the most common symptoms are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal discomfort.

Around 100 years ago, typhoid fever, tuberculosis and cholera were some of the most common foodborne illnesses.

Now with improved food processing, pasteurization of milk and water treatment, these diseases have been almost eliminated. Today, other bacteria and viruses have become common causes of foodborne illnesses.

• Camplyobacter is the most common bacteria causing foodborne diarrhea in the world. These bacteria live in the intestines of birds and often contaminate raw poultry such as chicken.

Eating undercooked chicken or eating food contaminated by juices from raw chicken is a common way to swallow these bacteria.

It causes a diarrhea that is often bloody with fever and cramps. Most people recover without any special treatment. There are rare complications such as arthritis.

• Escherichia coli 0157: H7 is frequently referred to in the newspaper as E.coli. E. coli is found in everyone’s colon and most types cause no problems at all.

Certain types can cause serious illness, most commonly diarrhea. Escherichia coli 0157: H7 is one of the types that causes illness and lives in the intestines of cattle.

Humans become ill when they eat food contaminated by the feces of animals infected with these organisms. Hamburger meat seems to be a common source as has salami, lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, drinking unpasteurized milk and apple juice, and contaminated water.

This strain of bacteria can cause severe bloody diarrhea. Most people recover without problems in 5 to 10 days, but 1 in 20, mostly children, develop severe complications with low blood counts, bleeding and kidney failure.

• Another strain of E.coli can cause a severe watery diarrhea. It is very common in developing countries and is spread on unwashed fruits and vegetables, and in drinking water. It is probably responsible for the majority of traveler’s diarrhea.

• Salmonella is a bacteria found in the intestines of birds, reptiles and mammals. It can be spread through eating raw poultry, eggs, meat and unwashed fruit.

Most people who swallow these bacteria have fever, diarrhea and cramps. And most get better by themselves without medications.

Some patients, usually those with weakened immune systems, may need hospitalization for fluids and antibiotics.

There are many other foodborne illnesses that are less common.

The U.S. Centers of Disease Control has a few simple recommendations for how to decrease the risk of ingesting a foodborne disease.

• Cook meat, poultry and eggs thoroughly.

• Separate cooked and uncooked foods. Avoid contamination by not using platters or utensils which have touched raw foods and then using them with cooked foods.

• Chill leftovers promptly. Don’t leave food out more than four hours.

• Clean produce. Wash hands before preparing food and immediately after touching raw foods.

• Report suspected foodborne illness to the local health department.

Treatment for most foodborne illnesses is usually fluid replacement with pedialyte or oralyte.

Gatorade does not have enough important minerals. Bismuth subsalicylate or Pepto-Bismol may help slow down the symptoms.

Imodium may be used, but if there is fever or blood in the stools it may make things worse. If there is fever more than 101.5, dizziness, dry mouth, bloody diarrhea, or if the diarrhea last more than three days, you should see your doctor.

Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital, and Keith Bly is an associate professor of pediatrics and director of the UTMB Pediatric Urgent Care Clinics. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.