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Food Poisoning's Hidden Legacy

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Most people think of foodborne illness as an unpleasant few days of fever and diarrhea, but for some there may be lifelong consequences

It is a scary idea that food poisoning—which we think of as lasting just a few days—could instead have lifelong aftereffects. The incidence of such “sequelae,” in medical parlance, has been thought to be low, but not many researchers studied the problem until recently. New findings by several scientific teams suggest the phenomenon is more common than anyone thought.

Long-term consequences are not limited to individuals who were hospitalized, as Dana was. They have also been recorded in people who experienced what seemed to be minor bouts of fever, vomiting or diarrhea. The consequences include reactive arthritis, urinary tract problems and damage to the eyes after Salmonella and Shigella infections; Guillain-Barré syndrome and ulcerative colitis (a chronic bowel inflammation) after Campylobacter infection; and kidney failure and diabetes after infection with Escherichia coli O157:H7. Those organisms are very common: federal investigators have identified them in meat, milk, poultry, eggs, seafood, fruit, vegetables and even processed foods.

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