Ways to ward off the 'D' word

Contributing writerOctober 16, 2013 

You just got a boil water advisory – now what does that mean? It means coliform bacteria or perhaps E. coli was found in your water supply. Or maybe you just learned that your favorite food is suspected to have caused a widespread disease outbreak. Does that mean you will get sick or that the illness you are experiencing now is due to something you ate or drank? Gastrointestinal illness (diarrhea, with or without vomiting) can be caused by a lot of different germs – viruses, bacteria, even parasites. Most of them are bothersome and a mess to deal with, but we usually get over it in a few days. Viruses such as Norwalk (cruise ship viruses) give you very powerful explosive vomiting and diarrhea that may last for 24 to 48 hours, but usually go away without any treatment. People also can get cholera-like explosive diarrhea from eating contaminated raw shellfish.

Diarrhea caused by bacteria tends to last longer, usually a few days, and may sometimes include fever, body aches, bloody diarrhea, and other complications. Bloody diarrhea (any blood in diarrhea) should be a sign that you should check with your doctor right away.

And the very young, very old, and fragile patients may not handle any diarrhea well. Check with your health care provider – laboratory testing and treatment may be needed.

E. coli bacteria are found naturally in the intestines of all animals, including humans. Certain types of E. coli are harmful, producing toxins that can cause diseases and complications. The presence of E. coli in a water system indicates that the water may be contaminated by waste from animals or humans. When water providers notice they have bacteria in their water, it is a sign that contamination is getting in somehow. Issuing a boil water advisory is one way to inform people to take extra precaution to prevent illness; it does not mean that you will definitely have E. coli disease or that any illness you are experiencing is due to E. coli.

Preventing food borne illness is one of the reasons that public health professionals work hard to inform and educate everyone about proper food handling. Anyone who serves food to others (even in your own homes) should understand the basics of proper food handling to prevent illness. In restaurants, managers, food workers and public health staff work together to help ensure that the food you eat is safe. Still, you as the consumer have the main job of protecting yourself from illness. Raw, uncooked, or improperly cooked foods can cause illness.

Are nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea preventable? Yes. We all have our role to play in preventing diseases.

Proper well and septic system construction and maintenance help keep germs out of our drinking water. Regularly testing water and regularly inspecting septic systems ensures any problems are caught. Proper food handling includes careful preparation and cooking. If you feel ill, do not prepare food for others. And of course, one of the most simple and effective disease prevention techniques is frequent hand washing. These basics go a long way toward preventing illness for ourselves, our families, and our whole community.

Dr. Diana T. Yu is the Health Officer for Thurston and Mason counties. Reach her at 360-867-2501, yud@co.thurston.wa.us, @yu4health on Twitter and at www.co.thurston.wa.us/health.

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