With more than 680 patients treated at Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC)'s Al Wakra Hospital Emergency Department in May and June for symptoms related to foodborne illnesses, Dr Farouq al-Rawi, consultant of Emergency Medicine, has said cases of food poisoning tend to spike during the summer months.

“Food poisoning is a sudden illness with symptoms occurring a short time after eating or drinking something contaminated, spoiled or toxic. Common symptoms such as stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea usually occur within 72 hours. Around 5% of the 37,000 patients we cared for at the Al Wakra Emergency Department during May and June were treated for food poisoning or gastroenteritis,” said Dr al-Rawi.

Dr al-Rawi says it is usually not a serious medical condition and can be treated with over-the-counter medication, hydration and rest. Most cases will resolve within three to five days, but Dr al-Rawi says severe food poisoning may require hospitalisation and hydration with intravenous fluids.

“Staying hydrated, eating a bland, low-fat diet and getting plenty of rest is the recommended treatment for food poisoning. While over-the-counter medications can help control diarrhoea and suppress nausea, we don’t recommend using these medications. The body uses vomiting and diarrhoea to rid the system of toxins and these medications could mask the severity of an illness,” said Dr al-Rawi.

He added that incidents of foodborne illnesses spike during the summer barbecue season, underscoring the need to be careful about storing, preparing and serving foods. Dr al-Rawi recommends cleaning BBQs before each use and washing the grill with hot water and soap. He says raw food should be kept refrigerated at all times, never coming into contact with cooked food.

“Raw meat, poultry and seafood should be securely wrapped and stored at the bottom of a cooler or refrigerator so their juices won’t contaminate already prepared foods or raw produce. When using a BBQ, foods should be cooked thoroughly and served immediately after cooking, or cooled quickly,” said Dr al-Rawi.

Hadeel Abou-Nada, clinical dietician at Hamad General Hospital, said while anyone can get food poisoning, young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses or compromised immune systems, such as those with diabetes, AIDS, or cancer, are most at risk of becoming severely ill as a result of contracting a foodborne illness.

“The best way to prevent food poisoning is to handle your food carefully and to avoid eating any foods that may have been improperly prepared. Always wash your hands before cooking or eating and make sure that your food is properly sealed and stored. Anything that comes into contact with raw products, including countertops, cooking or eating utensils, linens and your own hands, should be sanitised before prepare other foods. When eating canned food, ensure it has been properly canned and is not expired,” added Abou-Nada.

Foods eaten raw are a common source of food poisoning because they don’t go through the cooking process, which kills most foodborne pathogens. Abou-Nada says food temperate can be a major cause of foodborne illness, with foods that are not refrigerated properly, not kept hot enough, or left at room temperature for too long being among the most common causes of food poisoning.

“Food handlers can contaminate food if they are ill, if they don’t wash their hands sufficiently after using the bathroom, or if they have a cut or sore on their hands. Cross-contamination of food can happen if the same knives and cutting board is used for raw meat, poultry, or fish and uncooked fruits or vegetables,” said Abou-Nada.

She adds that packed lunches can be a major cause of food poisoning in children, noting that parents who pack their child’s lunch should take special care to ensure the lunchbox is properly cleaned. She also recommends choosing foods wisely, avoiding those that pose the highest contamination risk, such as lunch meats and mayonnaise, and instead selecting options that don’t have to stay hot or cold. She says insulated lunchboxes are also a good option if packing at-risk items.

Abou-Nada has also encouraged parents to teach children about the importance of good hand hygiene by washing their hands with soap and water before and after eating. She says parents should encourage children not to share eating utensils and to drink from their own water bottles and cups.

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