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BODY WATCH : Don't Let Your Food Make You Sick

November 14, 1995|KATHLEEN DOHENY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Raw oysters. Caesar salad. A rare hamburger.

Not everyone's idea of a feast, but you thought it tasted great--until this moment, when you're feeling awful. As you crawl between the covers, you chalk it up to indigestion or a 24-hour bug.

Another likely possibility: food poisoning.

An umbrella term, it describes illnesses caused by a variety of organisms. Usually, it's short-lived and subsides with little more than rest and fluids. Other times, it can be deadly without medical attention. How to tell the difference and minimize your risk next time?

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The Stats: Pinpointing the extent of the problem is difficult because many cases of food poisoning go unreported.

From January to July, 23 food-borne illness outbreaks involving 533 people were reported to the California Department of Health Services, says a spokesman.

Of great concern is a virulent strain of Escherichia coli (E. coli) , first identified as a cause of human illness in 1982 and now thought to infect about 20,000 people a year in the United States. It's the bacterium that contaminated fast food burgers in a widely publicized case in the spring of 1993, killing three people.

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Other Bugs: In October, a Pennsylvania firm called for a nationwide recall of more than a half million pounds of bologna, believed to be contaminated with salmonella bacteria. Staphylococcus is found in high-protein foods such as cream fillings and cheeses. Shigella is often transmitted by food handlers. Listeria , found in unpasteurized dairy goods, is particularly hazardous to pregnant women since it can cause meningitis. Clostridium botulinum , found in raw honey and home-canned foods, can cause deadly botulism.

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The Timetable: Depending on the organism, symptoms can occur from 30 minutes to two weeks after eating tainted food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most often, people get sick six to 18 hours after eating, says Dr. Kimberly Shriner, an infectious disease specialist at Good Samaritan Hospital.

The usual symptoms are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever or stomach cramps. In botulism, which is very rare, these symptoms are followed by overall weakness and lethargy.

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To Self-Treat? Deciding whether to call the doctor or treat at home is a tricky judgment call. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish food poisoning from influenza. Food poisoning usually comes on more suddenly.

Often, food poisoning resolves itself in about six to 12 hours, says Shriner. "If you are not able to keep food down after that time or you have bloody diarrhea or blood in the urine, see a physician," she says. If there is a fever at any time, especially if the patient is a child, consider calling the doctor. And if there is no improvement in 24 to 48 hours, she says, seek medical attention.

At home, drink sports drinks or flat 7-Up to treat dehydration, advises Dr. Calvin Lowe, pediatrician and emergency department physician at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. Decreased urine output and severe abdominal pain are other symptoms that need medical attention.

Medical attention is vital if botulism is suspected. An anti-toxin can be given.

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Reducing Risks: "The majority of food-borne outbreaks are preventable," says Marilyn Swanson, a registered dietitian and extension professor of food safety at the University of Idaho, Moscow.

Several suggestions:

* Be especially careful in storing or eating certain foods that are more likely to cause food poisoning. A partial list: Caesar salad dressing made with raw eggs; raw shellfish, rare ground beef, unwashed fruit from a farm, soups under heat lamps, fried rice.

* For homemade Caesar salads, buy pasteurized egg substitutes.

* In a fast food restaurant, the risk of food poisoning increases when food is left out for long periods. If meat looks dry or the bun stale, send it back.

* At salad bars, look for sneeze guards.

* If fish is not flaky, it is probably undercooked.

* To avoid E. coli , which is more likely to be found in ground beef than in a steak, don't order your burger rare. Cut it in half before eating. "If it's pink, don't eat it," Shriner warns. Ground beef should be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit to kill E. coli.

* Good hygiene during food preparation can help. Wash hands for 20 seconds, longer if someone in the household is ill, advises Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at UC Davis.

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Special Cases: More susceptible to food poisoning are children, the elderly, people with damaged livers or compromised immune systems and anyone on cancer chemotherapy. So are people who take antacids because they have less stomach acid to fight off bacteria.

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FYI: To report suspected cases of food poisoning, call the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, (213) 240-7821.

For information about food safety, call the USDA's Meat and Poultry Hot Line, (800) 535-4555.

* Doheny cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to questions of general interest. Please do not telephone. Write to Your Body, Life & Style Section, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.

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