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The dangers of food poisoning - and how to avoid it

We've all experienced it at least once in our lives: That sudden onset of queasiness that quickly escalates into a full-fledged gastro-intestinal apocalypse. Fortunately, for most, food poisoning runs its course in about 24 hours with no lasting effects.

For some, however, it can be much worse than a day or two of misery. Food poisoning can lead to life-threatening complications - including dehydration, kidney failure and widespread organ failure in those with vulnerable immune systems. Those most at risk include:

  • Pregnant women
  • The elderly
  • Young children
  • Organ transplant recipients
  • Cancer patients
  • AIDS/HIV patients

What causes food poisoning?

Many types of contaminants can contribute to food poisoning - bacteria, parasites, viruses and mold, to name a few. The most common culprits include:

  • Listeria
  • Salmonella
  • E. coli
  • C. perfringens
  • Trichinosis
  • Staphylococcus
  • Campylobacter

One type of bacteria - Clostridium botulinum - causes a particularly serious infection called botulism. Unless promptly caught and treated, it can lead to nerve damage, paralysis and death in a matter of days.

How to avoid it

Some foods are more susceptible to contamination than others, especially if improperly stored or prepared. Watch out for these higher-risk foods:

  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Fresh produce
  • Seafood
  • Raw meat
  • Unpasteurized cheeses (such as imported Brie and feta)
  • Improperly canned foods
  • Salad bars

If you're pregnant or otherwise vulnerable, take care while handling these foods. You should also steer clear of riskier foods such as sushi, undercooked meats, raw eggs, raw sprouts and unpasteurized cheeses.

Practicing food safety is the best way to avoid getting sick. In particular, the FDA recommends:

  • Washing all produce thoroughly
  • Cooking meats to the correct temperatures
  • Tossing refrigerated foods that have been left out for too long
  • Paying attention to expiration and sell-by dates

Sometimes, however, even the most meticulous precautions can't protect you from widespread contamination that results from health code violations. In these unfortunate situations, victims may have a legal claim against the food establishment, distributor or other negligent party.

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