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Watch out! It's time for water and food-borne illnesses

20 Aug, 2014

Water and food-borne illnesses

Rains are a welcome break from the searing heat of summer, but they also bring with them a host of water- and food-borne illnesses.

What are the causes?

  • Toxins produced by bacteria or harmful algal species
  • Food or water that is contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses or parasites
  • These germs infect the lining of your digestive tract, especially your small and large bowels, and lead to inflammation/reactions that lead to symptoms.

What are examples of water- and food-borne illnesses?

  • Typhoid
  • Dysentery
  • E-Coli
  • Cholera
  • Diarrhea

You can get the above illnesses by eating or drinking water or food that is contaminated. They are not spread directly from person to person, as is commonly believed.  However, already-sick food- or water-handlers or cooks who do not properly wash their hands can spread their germs and make you sick with a water-borne illness.

What are the symptoms?

Nausea,vomiting, and/or diarrhea are some of the symptoms.  Bloating, stomach cramps, and excessive gas are additional symptoms.  Some types of bacteria may cause blood and mucus in the stool.

Are water- or food-borne illnesses fatal?

Most water- or food-borne illnesses can be treated and rarely result in death. But in case of individuals with poor immunity, very young children, and the elderly, complications may arise which lead to more serious illness.

Treatment and Prevention

Prevention is the best course of action. Wash your hands well, scrubbing under your nails and in between your fingers, after using the washroom. Use hand sanitizers when on the go. When you get home or where it’s available, use soap and water. Teach your children and family members to wash their hands properly and often.

Avoid raw or un/undercooked foods, or untreated water, including water used to wash raw foods --- especially at places where you are unsure of hygienic practices.

Don’t leave uncooked foods out for more than 30 minutes – toxins and bacteria can multiply to cause illness in a very short period of time.

Get yourself and family members vaccinated for Typhoid at least every four years. Get your family vaccinated for Hepatitis A virus – this is a series of 2 vaccinations taken six months apart. Children should be vaccinated against rotavirus, which is very commonly transmitted among young children.

Watch your diet

In case you contract a water-borne illness, drink plenty of clear fluids and ORS (oral rehydration solution). Stick to bland foods and avoid spicy or high-fiber foods.  The lining of your GI tract is very fragile during these infections. Even after a diarrheal infection clears, it can take several days to a week for the lining to reform again, and for you to feel “normal” with your bowel movements.


Paracetamol is recommended if you have fever and pain. Ibuprofen is discouraged because it can cause stomach irritation and potentially worsen your symptoms. Avoid antibiotics except under a doctor’s supervision. Some antibiotics can actually lead to more severe symptoms. Antibiotics taken unnecessarily can lead to worsened diarrhea, additional infections, yeast infections in women, and increased resistance to future infections.

When to seek help

Seek help from your healthcare provider if you have a fever for more than 48 hours, bloody stools, or mucus in your stools.  Also seek help if you are feeling pain with passing bowel movements.  Seek help if you have persistent nausea or diarrhea for more than 24 hours, and you are unable to keep down any liquids or food.  You may need special tests to diagnose the infection, special medicines including antibiotics, and/or treatment for dehydration.