The serious and long-term effects of foodborne illness

Learn more about some lesser-known side effects of foodborne illnesses.

Many people think if they eat something “bad” they might spend some uncomfortable time in the restroom then go on with their lives in a day or two. Actually, foodborne illness can lead to chronic disease, permanent disability and even death. Here are some of the lesser-known facts about the long term effects of food borne pathogens.

Reactive arthritis, a type of joint inflammation that affects the knees, ankles or feet can develop after being exposed to Campylobacter jejuni  or Salmonella. Reactive arthritis usually lasts fewer than 6 months, but this condition may recur or become chronic arthritis. Campylobacter is found in raw and undercooked poultry, unpasteurized milk and contaminated water. Salmonella is also found in eggs, undercooked meat and poultry, and can be transferred to other foods through feces. Campylobacter infection afflicts millions of Americans annually and hospitalizes more than 10,000. Campylobacter is associated with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS). GBS patients can become permanently disabled and paralyzed; many require hospital care. Campylobacter also can trigger arthritis, heart infections and blood infections.

Foodborne illnesses caused by bacteria also increase the risk of developing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a disorder of unknown cause that is associated with abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea or constipation or both. There is no cure for IBS.

Children are the most likely to be infected and have the most serious complications from E. coli O157:H7. They can develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), HUS can lead to death, or in some cases t long-term or permanent health problems, including end-stage kidney disease, neurological complications, and insulin-dependent diabetes. Adults who had recovered from E. coli O157:H7 infections had increased risks of high blood pressure, kidney problems and cardiovascular disease. E. Coli is found in undercooked ground beef, unpasteurized (raw) milk and juice, soft cheeses made from raw milk, and raw fruits and vegetables (such as sprouts). It can also be found in contaminated water and feces of infected people.

Listeria monocytogenes infects thousands of Americans every year and has been associated with infections of the brain and spinal cord, resulting in serious neurological dysfunctions or death. Most reported cases occur in children under the age of 4, and about 1 in 5 people afflicted die as a result of the infection. In pregnant women, listeriosis can cause miscarriage, premature birth or stillbirth.

Listeriosis survivors often are left with serious neurological dysfunctions, including seizures, paralysis and impaired ability to see, hear, swallow or speak. Severe cases often result in partial to total impairment and can require life-long residential care with no possibility of work. Listeria is found in ready-to-eat deli meats and hot dogs, refrigerated pâtés or meat spreads, unpasteurized (raw) milk and dairy products, soft cheese made with unpasteurized milk, such as queso fresco, feta, brie, camembert, refrigerated smoked seafood and raw sprouts.

The long-term effects of foodborne disease are still not fully understood. New findings unfold as research is performed, but until then, taking foodborne illness seriously can go a long way in protecting health. This is another instance where prevention truly is the best medicine.

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