NOT too long ago, I had gleefully drunk a glass of raw, unpasteurised milk, fresh from the cow. I was at a farm in Austria and had wanted to taste “live” milk. I’d read so much about live food and its wonders as opposed to cooked food.

I was scolded by my two doctor friends who were on that trip with me. One used to work for the Centre for Diseases Control and Prevention and the other is a pathologist. I saw their faces turn pale with fear for me, for being so reckless. It was bad enough that we were in a remote area so far away from home.

I had just exposed myself to a very possible threat of bad food poisoning caused by Listeria monocytogenes. These bacteria can also cause flu, fever, muscle aches, stomach ache, nausea and diarrhoea. They watched me like a hawk for 24 hours. They’ve seen the damage bacteria, viruses and parasites can wreak on a person.

Fortunately, nothing happened. I was lucky; thankfully, the farm equipment was clean, the cows were healthy and the farmers practised very high standards of hygiene. I understood and appreciated my friends’ concern. So many things could’ve gone wrong and made me very sick.

Listeria is just one of the culprits that can cause food poisoning. There are also salmonella, E.coli, botulism, hepatitis A and a variety of parasites. They can be found nearly everywhere, especially when you eat out and when food handlers do not practise healthy hygiene.

Everyone should practise healthy hygiene because it’s so easy. Wash your hands before and after eating, after going to the toilet and after changing your baby’s diaper. Caregivers should always make sure that the loved ones in their care have clean hands too.

BE EXTRA VIGILANT

Food handlers and restaurant operators should make it a rule never to put cooked food on the same plate/dish/counter top that held it when it was raw. When washing fruit, dry it with a clean cloth or paper towel before cutting it. Always clean as you go along and always wash your hands, cutting boards, utensils and countertops after use.

Food handlers who are sick with cough, cold, flu, hepatitis A or have an open wound shouldn’t be allowed to handle food. People can be infected quite quickly.

For those who eat at buffets, restaurants or open houses, be careful of fresh produce like salads, sprouts and fruit. In our hot and humid weather, they could harbour salmonella. Be wary of cold food gone warm and warm food gone cold. Food that has been on the warmer for a long time like soups, stews and gravy may also cause problems to some.

Be particularly careful of raw meats, fish, seafood and shellfish like oysters and clams. Sometimes you can’t tell the food is contaminated because it looks and smells good. During this period of festivities, raw fish and sashimi may be de rigueur for yee sang (raw fish salad). Just be careful when you order this. Ensure the supplier is reliable and has a good reputation and track record.

People with weakened immune systems should be extra careful. Bring your medications like antihistamines with you. Remember, any shellfish that doesn’t open after cooking should not be eaten.

Animal products that had contact with faeces can cause salmonella. One of the biggest culprits for this is soft boiled eggs because even clean, fresh ones may harbour these bacteria. The same applies to raw eggs. Adding honey to raw eggs is a no-no for children below 12 months old.

Many people, especially healthy adults, may get away with it. However, there are groups of people who are susceptible to infection, namely those whose immunity has been compromised, the elderly, children and pregnant women.

EAT LIGHT MEALS

Food poisoning, depending on what caused it, can last for anything from eight hours to a week. The worst of it are vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach cramps, headaches, dehydration, and flu-like symptoms.

Even though you’ve passed the worst of it at the first stage, your stomach may still be quite tender and you could continue to have cramps.

If that happens, eat light meals. Avoid eating dairy and anything oily, spicy or sweet. Drink plenty of fluids but you’ll have to sip regularly and not chug it all down. Also remember to take oral rehydration salts to replace the electrolytes lost.

If the usual home remedies don’t work and certain symptoms persist, (like high fever, prolonged vomiting and/or diarrhoea), or there are signs of dehydration, see the doctor.

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