It can be an absolute nightmare and heartbreak when one or more of your children gets sick. It’s particularly scary when the sickness is a result of the consumption of contaminated food. Parental guilt can strike, and that’s something most parents can’t quite take in stride.
None of my children ever experienced any kind of foodborne illness (also known commonly as food poisoning) when they were younger. I, on the other hand have, and it is an occurrence that I wouldn’t want to see anyone go through, especially when it comes to my beloved children. The symptoms of foodborne illness are wretched and can ravish a young child’s body. I can only imagine the anguish of witnessing it.
What to Look for if a Foodborne Illness is Suspected
The scenario can look something like this: your child begins to complain of having an upset stomach, followed shortly by severe cramps. These complaints could also be accompanied by a fever, usually around 101 degrees F. Then comes the sprints to the bathroom with diarrhea and/or vomiting (and you can only hope those sprints are successfully achieved). Be aware that the aforementioned symptoms may not occur simultaneously, and any one of them is cause for concern, especially if they seem to come out of nowhere. The symptoms can begin anywhere from as soon as an hour up to one week after eating contaminated food, and can vary according to the type of pathogen. Most importantly, if your child can’t hold liquids down without throwing up or is otherwise showing signs of dehydration, your immediate course of action should be to get him to the hospital for IV treatment to replace fluids and restore his electrolyte balance. Signs of dehydration include:
- Dry or sticky-feeling mouth
- Dry, cool skin
- Not peeing very much
- Dark yellow urine
- Muscle cramps
- Thirst (but not always)
Treatment for a Suspected Foodborne Illness in Children
With many types of foodborne illnesses, the symptoms usually resolve in a day or two. However, it’s still vital to treat the symptoms when they appear. Children, because they’re smaller, are more susceptible to dehydration, so providing your child with plenty of fluids is essential. Milk, caffeinated drinks, or carbonated drinks are to be avoided. Instead, provide drinks with electrolytes such as Pedialyte or Gatorade. For infants, you can give small amounts of what they normally ingest, either breast milk or formula. Older babies and children can consume water, ice chips, or popsicles.
It’s also helpful if your child:
- Avoids food for the first few hours until the stomach settles down
- Eats when they feel ready, but go slow — start with small amounts of bland, non-fatty foods such as crackers, dry cereal, toast, and rice
- Gets plenty of rest
It’s also important to not give your child anti-diarrheal medication, unless specifically prescribed by your child’s doctor. This type of medication can exacerbate the length of the diarrhea.
Again, most symptoms improve within a day or possibly two; however, an immediate visit to a health care professional or hospital is in order if your child has not significantly improved in 24 hours if he or she has any of the following symptoms:
- Blurry vision
- Diarrhea and a fever above 101 degrees F
- Bloody vomit or feces
- Severe abdominal cramps that don’t resolve after pooping
- Muscle weakness
- Problems breathing
- Consistent vomiting for more than 12 hours
- Tingling in the arms
Prevention Goes a Long Way
Now that the ugly and scary information is concluded, there are steps that every parent or caregiver can practice in the way of being proactive in foodborne illness prevention. Approximately 48 million people contract a foodborne illness each year, and a great number of these are children. It cannot be understated of the importance of consistently and frequently washing your hands before, during, and after handling virtually every type of food product, and ensuring that your children do the same. Following these simple procedures while grocery shopping will also reduce exposure to the pathogens that can unsuspectedly lurk in food:
- Separate foods that you purchase (raw meat, poultry and seafood) from other foods in your shopping cart as well as during checkout and in the bags you use to transport them.
- Inspect cans and jars that you purchase, ensuring that they aren’t bulging or dented (a sign of possible contamination due to under-processing). Loose lids on jars can indicate that the vacuum seal is compromised. Don’t buy these kinds of products.
- Inspect frozen foods. Check for signs of damage such as open, torn, or crushed at the edges. Look for signs of freezer burn (frost or ice crystals) that can mean the product has been stored for a very long time, or worse, thawed and refrozen.
- Select frozen foods and perishable items as the last items on your list. Food such as raw meat, poultry, fish, and eggs should go in your cart last, and be sure to put them in separate plastic bags so they don’t drip onto other foods.
- Carefully choose your eggs. Make sure that the eggs are clean, not cracked or broke. USDA grade eggs have to show the “pack date” on the carton: the day that the eggs were graded, washed, and packed. The pack date is also known as the Julian date, which means that each day of the year represents a chronological number, e.g. December 31st is expressed as 365, and January 1st would be 001. So, if your eggs are still within the expiration date or within 21 to 30 days after the pack date, you can be fairly sure they are still fresh. With the recent salmonella outbreak with eggs still “fresh” in our minds, it’s important to ensure the safety of the eggs you choose. Since salmonella can exist on egg shells, you need to wash the eggs. Salmonella can only be destroyed by thoroughly cooking the eggs.
- Refrigerate perishable food promptly. These foods should never be left at room temperature more than two hours as nasty bacteria can multiply rapidly in this two-hour “danger zone.” The danger zone is defined as a range between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
How You Store and Handle Food is Critical
For optimum and proactive food safety practices, follow the steps recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture:
- Clean – Wash hands for at least 20 seconds in hot, soapy water before, during, and after handling food
- Separate – Meat and poultry from each other and from produce. Make sure all utensils and surfaces are cleaned before and after food preparation.
- Cook – All raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees F as measured with a food thermometer. Ground beef, pork, lamb and veal requires an internal cooking temperature of 160 degrees F. Cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F as measured by a food thermometer.
- Chill – Refrigerate perishables promptly. When thawing meat, keep in original container or a plastic bag away from other perishables, and cook immediately after thawing (in the refrigerator).
For comprehensive and complete information regarding all types of foodborne pathogens and their resultant symptoms, please visit the FDA website: www.fda.gov.
By: Kerry Bazany, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)