Cases of food poisoning increase in the summer months, thanks in part to all the outdoor dining at cookouts and barbeques. Most bouts of food poisoning, while miserable, can be managed at home with rest and fluids, but difficult cases require special medical attention.
Diana Pressey spoke with Dr. Carla Rudolph, a physician at MedAccess Urgent Care, about the increased dangers of food poisoning in the summer and what can be done to avoid it.
Diana Pressey: What is food poisoning, and why are there more cases of it in the summer months?
Carla Rudolph: Food poisoning is a toxin that is released in the food that we then consume, and it signals our bowels to essentially be overactive and flushes the bowels with unpleasant symptoms, while also often causing a headache and sweating. It tends to increase in the summer because of mayonnaise use and outdoor food preparation.
One of the major causes of food poisoning is from heated mayonnaise that’s not kept at cooler temperatures, and in the summer, there are all of these parties and barbecues and cookouts where people make things like potato salad or egg salad or devilled eggs that have mayonnaise in them. When they sit out on the picnic table or the porch for three, four, five hours, bacteria can grow in the mayonnaise and form little toxins. When we then consume those toxins, they signal our gastrointestinal tract to flush and empty itself.
DP: What factors, aside from the heat, increase the risk of food poisoning?
CR: Consuming food that hasn’t been fully cooked, consuming food that has been reheated multiple times, or consuming food that hasn’t been cooked to proper temperatures or cleaned properly, such as seafood or shellfish not being cooked properly.
DP: How is food poisoning treated?
CR: Luckily, most cases of food poisoning are self-limited, meaning that the symptoms will completely resolve, usually, within three to five days, worst-case scenario. Most of the time, food poisoning can just be treated with hydration, either by giving patients IV’s if they’re becoming dehydrated, or by patients increasing their oral fluid intake by drinking water, Pedialyte, Gatorade or Powerade to increase fluids so they can maintain their hydration status. If the patient is having a lot of nausea or vomiting, we also can offer prescription medications to allow them to keep down fluids and avoid having to get I.V. hydration.
DP: What about when patients are unable to keep down fluids at home?
CR: If you’re having trouble keeping down any kind of fluids at all and you’re absolutely not able to drink water, Powerade, Gatorade, Pedialyte without throwing them up, after three to four hours of this, I usually recommend seeking medical advice. But if it’s not that significant, you’re trying to prevent yourself from getting to that point, I recommend taking in small amounts of fluid.
Instead of sitting down and trying to drink, say, eight ounces of water, I would recommend trying to just drink a small amount, like two ounces at a time every 30 to 45 minutes. That way, you’re not irritating your gut or stomach while it’s already irritated with the food poisoning or stomach infection.
DP: What symptoms indicate that someone should go to urgent care when they have food poisoning?
CR: If you absolutely can’t keep down any fluids for an eight to 10-hour period, at that time, you definitely should be going to an urgent care and seeking medical attention, because the risk of dehydration is high. Another sign is if you haven’t urinated in four to eight hours while you’re having G.I. symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting, you should seek medical advice right away at that point. Other things to watch out for is if there’s any blood in the stool or blood in the vomit, or if you’re experiencing confusion, dizziness or a fever greater than 100.4. At that point, I would always recommend seeking medical advice.
DP: What preventative measures can be taken against food poisoning?
CR: One thing you can do is always go to respectable diners and restaurants, avoiding the hole-in-the-wall restaurants that have not met the standards for clean safety advisory by the governments. Avoiding those can keep you from getting sick. Also, avoiding things like potato salads, egg salads, tuna salads, anything that contains mayonnaise out on a hot day or a picnic outside. If the food isn’t still cold, you really shouldn’t be eating it.
Another thing that you can do is make sure all of your food has been heated to proper temperatures when you’re cooking at home. There are several food thermometers on the market that you can buy on Amazon or from cooking shops. You can use them to measure the temperature of the food and make sure it’s meeting the recommended temperature, which you can easily find online for whatever food you’re cooking.
DP: What’s the bottom line when it comes to food poisoning?
CR: Any time that you’re in doubt and you feel like you may be becoming dehydrated, or you have any kind of symptoms that you’re concerned about, always seek medical advice. Most urgent cares — specifically MedAccess — are open seven days a week, so it’s easy to get in and get out quickly, get checked and make sure there’s nothing scary going on that requires immediate medical attention. When in doubt, go to urgent care, and ask your physician to take a look at you. That’s what urgent care doctors are there for.