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Grab some fluids and put your doctor on speed-dial

Rebecca Firkser
April 25, 2018

A dozen raw oysters can seem like the most luxurious way to start a meal. Unfortunately, one bad oyster can get you so sick you’ll be out of commission for days. Food poisoning from oysters is somewhat rare, but if it gets you, it’s important to monitor your health closely for at least three days, especially if you have other health complications.

An oyster can be infected with several pathogens than can cause illness, the most common being norovirus and vibriosis. Since shellfish filter seawater through their bodies to find food particles, pathogens can seep into the oysters and infect them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, norovirus is the leading cause of food poisoning in the United States, and it can affect raw or cooked food that has been handled by someone infected with the virus. Oysters and other bivalve shellfish can contract norovirus-causing pathogens even before they’re handled by humans, as the water the seafood live in can be contaminated with untreated human sewage (causing norovirus) or bacteria naturally occurring in warm water (like vibrio, which causes vibriosis).

Vibrio bacteria live in warm seawater, and are rarer pathogens, but can be more serious. As water warms, vibro can rapidly multiply, potentially infecting a larger number of oysters. To avoid vibrosis, the CDC recommends cooking oysters to a bacteria-killing temperature by frying them in oil for at least three minutes at 375°F, broiling them three inches from heat for three minutes, or baking them at 450°F for 10 minutes. The Washington State Department of Health recommends taking the temperature of cooked oysters to ensure they’ve been cooked all the way through, registering an internal temperature of 145°F. Cooking oysters reduces your chance of getting sick from the seafood, but unfortunately is not 100 percent effective.

Even if you’ve done the best you can to ensure that the oysters you’re eating are safe, there’s still a chance you can get a bad one. If you do get sick, the best thing to do is drink lots of water to replace the fluids lost during illness to prevent dehydration. While you’re chugging water, call your doctor or local medical clinic, or take a stroll to the hospital. You’ll probably be fine in two or three days, but since some forms of seafood-borne food poisoning can be extremely serious, it’s important to get professionals involved as the illness may require more medical care.

In the throes of vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain, you may not be thinking about other people, which makes sense. However, wouldn’t it be great if you could help others avoid feeling as awful as you do right now? Exactly. To do this, contact your local health department. Even though it may be the last thing on your mind, you or someone you know should get in touch with the health department to let them know someone in their area has gotten sick from oysters. Since contamination often occurs from the area the oysters are harvested, the health department can work on closing the potentially contaminated fishing areas, as well as investigate the health practices at the restaurant you purchased the oysters.

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