Can Food Poisoning Cause Long-term Illness?

My neighbor insists that her arthritis is a result of food poisoning from eating tainted chicken last year. This sounds really far-fetched to me. Do you think it could be true?

– September 13, 2012

Yes, it could be true. Most of us think of food poisoning as a miserable bout of diarrhea or vomiting that lasts a day or two before it goes away, leaving you only with distaste for whatever food you think caused the problem. According to an estimate from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) some 48 million Americans – that’s one in six of us – suffered a bout of food poisoning in 2011; 128,000 people were hospitalized as a result of these infections, and 3,000 deaths were attributed to food-borne illness. But those alarming totals leave out the cases of chronic illness that can follow acute food poisoning.

Among the long-term consequences of any infection are reactive arthritis (joint pain and swelling related to infection elsewhere in the body) and urinary tract problems. There is also the possibility of eye damage related to infections with Salmonella and Shigella; ulcerative colitis linked to Campylobacter and diabetes and kidney failure that can occur after infection with a particularly nasty strain of E. coli (O157:H7).

An article on this subject in the March 29, 2012 issue of Scientific American reported on a Swedish survey that found higher than normal rates of aortic aneurysms, ulcerative colitis, and reactive arthritis among the nearly 102,000 individuals who became sick with food-borne bugs between 1997 and 2004.

Unfortunately, these illnesses can be difficult to trace back to food poisoning. We would know more if everyone affected were identified and tracked for years afterward to see if any long-term consequences develop. But this is impractical.  Many people who have symptoms they believe are due to food poisoning don’t seek medical care and don’t necessarily associate a subsequent illness with it.

But one report from Canada, described in the Scientific American article, is an eye-opener. In May 2000, a well in Walkerton, Ontario became contaminated with E. coli. More than 2,300 people became ill, and a study was launched to evaluate any long-term health consequences. Published in 2010, it found that those who got sick had a 33 percent higher than normal risk of developing high blood pressure, a 210 percent higher risk of heart attack or stroke, and a 340 percent higher risk of kidney problems in the eight years after the outbreak.

The latest news on this subject comes from a report by ABC News on July 11, 2012 that antibiotic-resistant E. coli in chicken may be responsible for difficult-to-treat, chronic urinary tract infections in some 8 million women. According to the FDA, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are fed to livestock, and even to healthy chickens to promote growth.

The bacteria that can cause food poisoning are everywhere, in virtually all types of food: beef, poultry, fish, eggs, fruits and vegetables. Here’s where you can find my recommendations on food safety and how to avoid the bad bugs.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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