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Food poisoning: A strain on your stomach and wallet

This hasn't been a good summer for restaurant-goers. Between mid-June and early July, more than 500 diners got food poisoning when they contracted an aggressive parasite from eating tainted lettuce in 19 states, including Iowa, Nebraska, Texas, Florida and New York. According to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), at least 24 people were hospitalized during the outbreak and more cases are expected to continue cropping up in the coming months.

food poisoningThe parasite is called cyclospora, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is most commonly spread by ingesting water or uncooked food that's been contaminated by human feces. The single-celled parasite attacks the small intestine and causes nasty symptoms, including diarrhea, loss of appetite, stomach cramps, vomiting, body aches, bloating, gas, nausea and fatigue.

While the virus itself is nasty, not having health insurance to cover the cost of treatment can be equally unpleasant.

And while this particular brand of food poisoning is typically rare, there is a whole host of foodborne illnesses out there just waiting to be consumed.

"Foodborne illnesses are actually fairly common," says Renee Boyer, associate professor of food science and technology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. "About 1 in 6 Americans will become sick with a foodborne illness this year, and the severity will vary.”

You probably don't have any intention of getting sick from the food you eat, but even the most hygienic and cautious eaters should know the symptoms, treatments and cost of food poisoning.

What is food poisoning, exactly?

The term gets thrown around a lot, but according to infectious disease physician Dr. Amesh Adalja, it's an informal, non-medical term that covers a multitude of conditions.

"'Foodborne illness' is the more official designation, and it refers to the contamination of food by bacteria, viruses, parasites or protozoa that lead to sickness when eaten," says Adalja, senior associate at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Center for Biosecurity and assistant clinical professor in the Department Of Critical Care Medicine.

According to Annie Pryor, Ph.D. in biochemistry and founder of the resource blog, foodborne illnesses come in two basic categories.

The first is food that's been contaminated by a dangerous germ or parasite such as E. coli, salmonella, norovirus or cyclospora. Many of these illnesses can also be contagious from person to person, and it usually takes at least 24 hours after eating to get sick.

"What's frightening is that in the case of these types of foodborne illnesses, the food itself looks perfectly fine and doesn't seem bad or spoiled," Pryor says.

Then there's noncontagious food poisoning, which usually occurs when food has been improperly stored. According to Pryor, this type of food poisoning comes from food that has been kept between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit -- what she calls "the temperature danger zone" -- for too long, allowing bacteria to grow on it, producing harmful toxins in the process.

Common causes of food poisoning

According to the CDC, norovirus -- which can be contracted from contaminated food and also be spread from person to person -- is the most common cause of foodborne disease outbreaks in the U.S. It causes your stomach and intestines to get inflamed, which leads to stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. Norovirus causes between 19 million and 21 million illnesses annually, contributes to between 56,000 and 71,000 hospitalizations, and results in 570 to 800 deaths each year.

"What's really scary is how contagious it is," Boyer says. "Norovirus can spread very rapidly."

Boyer says the most common cause of bacterial food poisoning is salmonella, which can be present in fecal material, raw poultry, eggs and undercooked beef. The symptoms are similar to norovirus -- such as vomiting and diarrhea -- but it's not contagious.

When should you seek treatment for food poisoning?

Most bouts with foodborne illnesses come and go within (a very unpleasant) 24 hours. However, there are a few reasons you might need to seek professional medical attention.

According to Adalja, the No. 1 cause for concern is dehydration, particularly among children and the elderly. Since foodborne illnesses can cause rapid fluid loss, Adalja says it's critical to drink water as often as possible. However, if the infected person isn't able to keep the water down, extreme dehydration fatigue may set in, at which point a visit to the emergency room may be necessary.

Adalja adds that you should also seek medical attention if you experience bloody stools or have a fever in addition to intestinal symptoms.

Does health insurance cover food poisoning treatment?

If you wind up in the hospital, treatment for food poisoning will probably consist of intravenous fluids, anti-nausea medication and antibiotics, but how long you stay in the hospital is going to depend on the severity of the illness.

"The only thing (health) insurance won't reimburse is intentional poisoning," says Garth Gibson, financial analyst for Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. "That could mean anything from a failed suicide attempt to getting sick from an eating competition. If you're the type who likes to experiment with strange or exotic foods [like raw meats, for instance], you might want to check with your insurance provider before you put something odd in your mouth. The last thing you want is to get poisoned and be left holding the bill."

"The reason most people are hospitalized is because of dehydration, so it's going to be a matter of how long it takes to rehydrate you and help you keep things down," Adalja says.

According to a 2010 USA Today article, food poisoning costs the United States about $152 billion annually. What’s more, according to Gibson, the average cost of a two-day hospital stay for food poisoning may cost about $8,000, and the patient's health insurance provider will most likely reimburse the cost. However, Gibson says it's important to note that a lot of health plans have high copays for emergency room visits, so there may be some out-of-pocket costs.

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