Food Poisoning 101

My character ate some fish that’s gone more than a little bad. Now what?

As with almost everything in writing, the answer is – that depends. Food poisoning can be caused by any of over 250 substances (bacteria, parasites, fungi, etc), and symptoms range in severity from very mild to life-threatening or fatal. Therefore, as long as you get the basics right, you, the author, can play with the outcome and severity to your hearts content. The most common symptoms of food poisoning include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain or cramps
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • General malaise (feeling “ill”)

Symptoms usually start 2-6 hours after consuming the bad food, though this timeframe can be shorter or much longer (up to several days) depending on the agent of infection (bacteria, toxin, etc). Most food poisoning will clear up on its own without specific medical treatment within a week, depending on the agent, but most people will recover completely within 12-48 hours.

Youngsters and elderly folks tend to get symptoms more easily, and also tend to have more severe complications.

Complications of food poisoning are rare, but can include:

  • Significant dehydration and shock
  • Kidney failure
  • Significant blood loss and shock
  • Arthritis or joint pain that doesn’t go away with the symptoms
  • Nervous system disorders (paralysis, tingling sensations)
  • Respiratory failure
  • Inflammation of the tissue that surrounds the heart

In all of these cases, seeking medical help is important, but if your character lives in an era or region of the world that doesn’t have the technology or knowledge to help, many of these complications can be fatal. A few of the organisms that most often cause fatal food poisoning and the foods they are found on are listed below.

  • Salmonella – a bacteria commonly found on birds and reptiles, this little germ (see photo) is transmitted to humans through contact with these or by eating undercooked poultry (bird meat or eggs), consuming unpasturized milk, or eating food that’s come into contact with surfaces that have been contaminated by salmonella (ie that old cutting board where he cut up the chicken first and then diced the tomatoes for the salad)
  • Chlostridium botulinum – an anaerobic bacteria (non-oxygen environment required for growth) that multiplies in canned foods where the can or jar is damaged, the seal is broken, or the food was not properly sterilized prior to sealing. Even cooking the food thoroughly won’t save the fellow who chows down on a can of this, because the bug that makes botulism produces a neurotoxin (nerve poison) that carries on after the germs themselves are dead. Botulism also lives in very low, mild forms in honey, but this is safe for all but the youngest or most immune compromised people. Babies should never be fed honey prior to age 1.
  • Shigella – this little bug is passed heavily in the feces (pooh) of people with the infection. So how did it get on your cheeseburger? Somebody didn’t wash hands before putting on that bun, more than likely. Ick. Symptoms last up to a week and can include pus in the diarrhea as well as all the usual symptoms. Kids who get severe shigella can develop seizures and brain damage.
  • E. coli – unlike media reports would lead you to believe, E. coli is usually a mild infection. Even the most virulent (deadly) form of the infection, a strain called O157:H7 is rarely fatal. Most cases clear up within a few days, but this infection can spread into the rest of the body, causing severe bleeding problems and kidney failure. The most common way to get this little sucker is to eat undercooked ground beef. Why? Because modern food processing machines aren’t always the most careful and meat can be contaminated with cow shit. Oops. Cooking ground beef or needle-punch tenderized meat thoroughly can save your characters a lot of problems later.
  • Cholera – this type of food poisoning usually isn’t passed in food. It’s caused by dirty drinking water. Drinking untreated water, particularly in areas of high population, poor sanitation, war, or famine is just asking for it. Cholera outbreaks in pre-modern eras were devastating to populations, and continues to be a major problem in Africa, parts of Asia, India, Mexico and South and Central America. Vaccines are currently in development to prevent this infection but are still in human testing phase

A few other things to consider when poisoning your characters via dinner are the parasites that can be picked up through food. These include but are certainly not limited to:

  • Fish tapeworms (giant tapeworms that can reach up to 30ft in length – see photo, yeah, that’s not a shoe lace) can be contracted from undercooked or raw fish. In the US, sashimi and sushi-grade fish is flash-frozen at very precise temperatures to kill off these potential pests prior to serving.

  • Trichinella (worms that invade the muscles of animals and humans and cause severe pain) are primarily gotten by eating undercooked pork.
  • Giardia are one-celled parasites that spread from infected animals or people. If your character’s dog gets bloody diarrhea, plan to fork over some $$ to test for and treat this before it spreads to the people.

As with any medical situation in fiction, consider what your reader needs to know, and what it’s reasonable for your character to know. You, the author, might know that the character’s symptoms are caused by that nasty waiter not washing his hands after using the toilet, but unless the character has gone to the doctor and been tested, or is prescient, she won’t, and if the specific bug isn’t important to the story, the reader won’t care either.

*****This blog is written for fiction writings, for the purpose of writing fiction. Information herein is not intended for use by real people, pets, trees, or imaginary friends. Arizela is not responsible for information used for purposes other than those expressly intended*****

About arizela

I'm a NICU nurse and lactation counselor, currently on hiatus to pursue a PhD in nursing which focuses on the development of health across the lifespan. I write books, articles, and blogs in between my duties as mom, wife, and student. I own a tool belt, and I'm not afraid to use it.
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2 Responses to Food Poisoning 101

  1. Stroppy Author says:

    The longest verified tapeworm was 11 metres and it was found in a woman in the US in 1991 – so don't be complacent, folks, just because American food is treated 🙂

  2. Arizela says:

    Cool information, Stroppy. People can always get around safeguards – say, by eating raw or undercooked fish that isn't sushi or sashimi grade.

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