Uninvited human guests during this holiday season may be irritating enough, but the worst party crashers could prove to be of the pathogenic kind - E. coli, salmonella and listeria, to name only a few.
Foodborne illnesses are no more common during the holiday season than at any other time of year. Even so, more food is prepared and consumed during this time of year, leaving the door open to all sorts of pathogens that may lurk on unwashed hands and countertops, and that ultimately may end up on the food you eat.
Following is a list of the more common bugs associated with foodborne illness along with their symptoms and common sources of human exposure.
Most often spread by exposure from raw or undercooked turkey and other poultry, Campylobacter Jejuni is now the leading cause of bacterial food poisoning. Because of its close association with poultry, it is a major source of concern during the holiday season. However, beef, pork, shellfish and unpasteurized milk also are sources.
Diarrhea, stomach pain, fever and nausea are the most common symptoms associated with this pathogen; vomiting is less common. Blood sometimes may be seen in feces. These symptoms may follow between one and 10 days after consuming the tainted food.
Symptoms typically last between two and five days, but seldom more than 10 days, though relapses can occur. Individuals with compromised immune systems may want to consult their physicians to determine if antibiotic use is appropriate.
E. coli O157:H7
Most Americans first became acquainted with this deadly pathogen in 1993 when several people, mostly children, died from exposure to the pathogen after consuming undercooked ground beef at a chain restaurant in the Pacific Northwest. Hundreds of others survived the ordeal after enduring days of excruciatingly severe nausea, cramping and bloody diarrhea.
Symptoms occur within two to eight days after exposure and include mild diarrhea to diarrhea with copious amounts of blood. Severe anemia and kidney failure are the complications most often associated with E. coli O157:H7.
While the pathogen is most often associated with undercooked beef, it can occur on almost any food that has not been adequately cooked or, in the case of raw vegetables and other uncooked foods, washed. Young children, a number of whom have died after contact with the pathogen, and elderly people are most vulnerable.
There has been quite a bit of hysteria about Listeria in recent years - and for good reason. It is a pathogen that is far more pervasive than salmonella and the potentially deadly E. coli 0157:H7. Listeria is linked to more than a fourth of all food-related deaths.
One thing that distinguishes Listeria from better-known disease-causing agents such as E. coli and salmonella is it can be found practically everywhere - in the air, on the ground, in water, in soil and even on people. Among foods, it is most commonly found in unpasteurized milk, soft-ripened cheeses and ready-to-eat meats such as hot dogs. Other sources of Listeria include raw and cold-smoked fish, raw meats and poultry, cooked poultry, fresh vegetables and ice cream.
Flu-like symptoms such as fever, muscle aches, nausea, diarrhea or a stiff neck are common symptoms associated with listeriosis. Symptoms may appear at any point between three and 70 days after exposure.
While healthy people usually recover quickly and fully from exposure to Listeria, individuals with weakened immune systems often are not so lucky.
Pregnant women are also an especially vulnerable group.
Norwalk and Norwalk-like Viruses
The symptoms associated with this group of viruses, named after a city in Ohio, have caused misery throughout the world. They are most often associated with mollusks or any seafood contaminated with sewage or sewage-tainted water.
Common symptoms, which occur within a day or two after consuming tainted food, include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, headache and mild fever. The symptoms can last for as long as 60 hours, though they typically are not accompanied by long-term complications.
Norwalk and Norwalk-like viruses account for roughly two-thirds of food poisoning outbreaks.
Salmonella, like Campylobacter, is another major concern during the holiday season because it is closely associated with undercooked poultry. Eggs are another major source of salmonella. Other sources may include raw meat, dairy products, pasta, shrimp, sauces and salad dressing.
Outbreaks also have been associated with close contact with pets such as turtles, terrapins, hedgehogs, dogs and cats.
Symptoms, which include diarrhea and abdominal cramping, typically occur within six to 48 hours after exposure and may be accompanied by fever, headaches, nausea and vomiting. Complications may include blood poisoning, meningitis and bone-joint infections.
The very young and old as well as immuno-compromised individuals are especially susceptible to salmonella exposure.
Though salmonella accounts for only about 10 percent of cases related to food poisoning, it is responsible for almost a third of the deaths associated with foodborne illness.
This ball-shaped bacteria, which often can be prevented merely by hand washing and other simple precautions, is responsible for an estimated 1.5 million outbreaks of foodborne illness every year in the United States. These bacteria manufacture a heat-resistant toxin that is even able to survive boiling. Exposure most often occurs when infected nasal secretions or untreated wounds on hands come into contact with food.
Vomiting can start as quickly as one to six hours after exposure. Symptoms may be intense, often resulting in hospitalization, though death is rare.
Staphylococcus presents a special risk during the holiday season mainly because of the large amount of finger food consumed during this time of year.
Source: Dr. Jean Weese, Alabama Cooperative Extension System food safety specialist and Auburn University professor of nutrition and food science.