How Can I Tell If I Have Food Poisoning?

iStock.com/PhotoBylove
iStock.com/PhotoBylove

Following a salmonella scare involving uncooked turkey in 35 states, millions of Thanksgiving tables may soon be thankful they’re not experiencing food poisoning this holiday season. Provided you take proper food safety precautions, like washing countertop surfaces and cooking meat to bacteria-killing temperatures (typically 165 degrees Fahrenheit or higher), you shouldn’t have to worry about prolonged diarrhea as part of your Black Friday schedule.

Unfortunately, sometimes best practices aren’t always followed, and a cook who fails to wash up or cook food thoroughly can inadvertently spread foodborne illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that roughly 48 million people are sickened from food poisoning annually. The signs and symptoms aren’t always obvious, though. So how can you know for sure? What are the causes? What about treatment? How long will it last?

Because vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and other unpleasantries are associated with a number of illnesses besides food poisoning, it helps to look at the timeline to examine what you’ve eaten in the past day or two to see if a specific meal may have been the culprit. “The details are the key to determine if someone has food poisoning,” says Jennifer Katz, M.D., attending physician at the Department of Gastroenterology at Montefiore Health System in New York. “What food was ingested, the time period between ingestion and onset of symptoms, the number of people who ingested the food and how many became ill, and the means of preparation and storage of the suspected food are a few of the key elements.”

Germs like norovirus, salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, and Campylobacter can be transmitted to humans due to improper hand-washing, food that hasn’t been heated thoroughly to kill bacteria, food that was improperly stored, or unsanitary preparation surfaces. If you’re experiencing vomiting, frequent bowel movements, cramps, or neurological symptoms like dizziness, it likely stems from something you’ve ingested within the past one hour to three days. Undercooked poultry, beef, shellfish, eggs, flour, and raw vegetables are common culprits, though you can ingest illness-causing bacteria in a variety of other ways: from kids, from travel, from health care environments, or from contaminated surfaces. If it’s not from food, though, it’s not food poisoning.

So how long does it last? “Most foodborne illness is self-limited,” Katz says. Your body will typically win the bacteria battle in a few hours to a few days, at which point you’ll probably just suffer some residual fatigue and loss of appetite.

Drinking water is the best treatment. Antiemetics or anti-diarrheal medication will slow down the body’s purging method for getting rid of the germs, potentially prolonging your symptoms. But if they don’t resolve within a few days, you might need the assistance of a physician. “One can consider seeking medical attention if they are immunocompromised, have fevers, bloody diarrhea, bloody vomiting, or are unable to tolerate any food or water,” Katz says. Children are more susceptible to getting dehydrated while vomiting and should be monitored closely.

Following a bout with food poisoning, Katz says you might be better off with low-fat meals to take it easy on your stomach. In the majority of cases, the illness will cause no lingering effects, save for an aversion to whatever it is that made you ill in the first place.

In short? If you don’t feel well and suspect a meal you’ve had in the past day or three was improperly prepared or stored, it’s likely food poisoning is the cause. Rest up and hydrate and you’ll be back to normal in no time.

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Is There An International Standard Governing Scientific Naming Conventions?

iStock/Grafissimo
iStock/Grafissimo

Jelle Zijlstra:

There are lots of different systems of scientific names with different conventions or rules governing them: chemicals, genes, stars, archeological cultures, and so on. But the one I'm familiar with is the naming system for animals.

The modern naming system for animals derives from the works of the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Latinized to Carolus Linnaeus). Linnaeus introduced the system of binominal nomenclature, where animals have names composed of two parts, like Homo sapiens. Linnaeus wrote in Latin and most his names were of Latin origin, although a few were derived from Greek, like Rhinoceros for rhinos, or from other languages, like Sus babyrussa for the babirusa (from Malay).

Other people also started using Linnaeus's system, and a system of rules was developed and eventually codified into what is now called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). In this case, therefore, there is indeed an international standard governing naming conventions. However, it does not put very strict requirements on the derivation of names: they are merely required to be in the Latin alphabet.

In practice a lot of well-known scientific names are derived from Greek. This is especially true for genus names: Tyrannosaurus, Macropus (kangaroos), Drosophila (fruit flies), Caenorhabditis (nematode worms), Peromyscus (deermice), and so on. Species names are more likely to be derived from Latin (e.g., T. rex, C. elegans, P. maniculatus, but Drosophila melanogaster is Greek again).

One interesting pattern I've noticed in mammals is that even when Linnaeus named the first genus in a group by a Latin name, usually most later names for related genera use Greek roots instead. For example, Linnaeus gave the name Mus to mice, and that is still the genus name for the house mouse, but most related genera use compounds of the Greek-derived root -mys (from μῦς), which also means "mouse." Similarly, bats for Linnaeus were Vespertilio, but there are many more compounds of the Greek root -nycteris (νυκτερίς); pigs are Sus, but compounds usually use Greek -choerus (χοῖρος) or -hys/-hyus (ὗς); weasels are Mustela but compounds usually use -gale or -galea (γαλέη); horses are Equus but compounds use -hippus (ἵππος).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Can Soap Get Dirty?

iStock/vintagerobot
iStock/vintagerobot

When you see lovely little bars of lemon-thyme or lavender hand soaps on the rim of a sink, you know they are there to make you feel as fresh as a gardenia-scented daisy. We all know washing our hands is important, but, like washcloths and towels, can the bars of hand soap we use to clean ourselves become dirty as well?

Soaps are simply mixtures of sodium or potassium salts derived from fatty acids and alkali solutions during a process called saponification. Each soap molecule is made of a long, non-polar, hydrophobic (repelled by water) hydrocarbon chain (the "tail") capped by a polar, hydrophilic (water-soluble) "salt" head. Because soap molecules have both polar and non-polar properties, they're great emulsifiers, which means they can disperse one liquid into another.

When you wash your dirty hands with soap and water, the tails of the soap molecules are repelled by water and attracted to oils, which attract dirt. The tails cluster together and form structures called micelles, trapping the dirt and oils. The micelles are negatively charged and soluble in water, so they repel each other and remain dispersed in water—and can easily be washed away.

So, yes, soap does indeed get dirty. That's sort of how it gets your hands clean: by latching onto grease, dirt and oil more strongly than your skin does. Of course, when you're using soap, you're washing all those loose, dirt-trapping, dirty soap molecules away, but a bar of soap sitting on the bathroom counter or liquid soap in a bottle can also be contaminated with microorganisms.

This doesn't seem to be much of a problem, though. In the few studies that have been done on the matter, test subjects were given bars of soap laden with E. coli and other bacteria and instructed to wash up. None of the studies found any evidence of bacteria transfer from the soap to the subjects' hands. (It should be noted that two of these studies were conducted by Procter & Gamble and the Dial Corp., though no contradictory evidence has been found.)

Dirty soap can't clean itself, though. A contaminated bar of soap gets cleaned via the same mechanical action that helps clean you up when you wash your hands: good ol' fashioned scrubbing. The friction from rubbing your hands against the soap, as well as the flushing action of running water, removes any harmful microorganisms from both your hands and the soap and sends them down the drain.

This story was updated in 2019.

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