Food intoxication is a form of food-borne illness caused by ingesting exotoxins made by organisms such as bacteria. Toxins can be present even when the bacteria or other causative organisms are not, and it is possible to develop food intoxication by eating animals that have consumed toxin-producing organisms, as seen with some types of shellfish poisoning. Onset of illness is usually very rapid and people can become very sick. Treatment varies, depending on the toxin involved, but can include administrating medications, providing the patient with fluids, and offering other supportive care to help patients recover.
Bacteria, fungi, and other organisms known to contaminate food sometimes produce toxic compounds as they develop. Known as exotoxins, these compounds are byproducts of the organism's normal metabolic processes and they may resist heat treatment and freezing. Bacteria present in the natural environment can contaminate food and they can also be introduced during harvesting, handling, processing, and preparation.
When people eat food contaminated with exotoxins, they can develop severe symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Numbness and tingling around the lips can also be observed in some cases. The symptoms usually appear quickly because the toxins act quickly on the body. Unlike an infection caused by eating contaminated food, where the organisms have to breed in the gut before symptoms develop, people with food intoxication get sick immediately.
In medical treatment, the first step is to determine the identity of the toxins. Patients can be tested and they may also be interviewed, as their recent dietary history can provide important clues about the organisms involved. Doctors may administer drugs to counteract the toxin, if they are available. Otherwise, patients will be encouraged to rest and drink fluids. If symptoms like organ damage and difficulty breathing develop, supportive therapies can be provided to keep the patient as stable as possible until the toxins have been expressed from the body.
After recovering from food intoxication, some patients experience lingering effects. This can include damage to the nerves, as well as organs. The patient may require physical therapy or other supportive care while in long-term recovery. Taking note of food handling precautions, eating in clean facilities, and avoiding foods labeled as dangerous will help people avoid food intoxication. It is important to pay attention to food recalls, which often involve bacterial toxins, and to be careful to eat shellfish from clean waters to limit exposure to toxins produced by organisms like dinoflagellates.