Bottom Line
Your Health
When good food goes bad

By Cara Reed
special to Land Line


Editor’s note: This is part of a series of features that includes tips on how to save yourself from various injuries, accidents and ailments while out on the road.

A neon light beckons from beyond the interstate: “ALL-U-CAN-EAT BUFFET.”  

At 7:20 p.m. you’re seated with a plate full of food. At 8 p.m., you’re back in your rig with a full belly, refreshed and ready to go. At 9 p.m. you develop stomach cramps so severe that you are thanking God that your engine is not governed, for it’s hammer down to the next bathroom.

Known as truck stop revenge, stomach flu, or food poisoning, the technical term for this rendition of the buffet blues is gastroenteritis. Call it what you want, it’s a hazard of the trade for those who must eat at convenient and quick places because of limited time and parking restrictions.

Just as defensive driving can save you on the road, defensive dining can keep you on the road and out of the can. And when the buffet trip goes bad despite your best efforts, some basic self-treatments can ease the symptoms if you become ill.

Gastroenteritis is the irritation and inflammation of the stomach or intestines caused most commonly by a virus, less commonly by bacteria or a parasite. Gastroenteritis usually results in abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. Frequently referred to as the “stomach flu,” it is not actually caused by a flu virus.

It is contagious and easily spread by people, contaminated or improperly prepared food, contaminated water and unsanitary eating utensils or dishes. Foods on buffets are more likely to be contaminated because of short preparation times, improper temperature regulation, being left out too long, and exposure to the public.

Certain foods are more likely to carry a virus. Raw foods are a common source of viruses and bacteria. Although lettuce and fresh veggies are a good choice nutritionally, they may not have been washed properly prior to serving.

Other examples of foods that can be problematic include eggs, cheeses, sushi, shrimp and dressings that are mayonnaise-based or dairy-based.

Be vigilant with your food choices. Hot food should be hot, and cold food should be cold; room temperature is not an option. Check to make sure that salad bar fixins’ appear washed, and opt for the non-creamy dressings.

Choose meats that are well cooked. And if you get a container of food to go, don’t let it sit around at cab temperature for more than two hours.

Food can also become contaminated by cooks and servers who are sick, who fail to wash their hands, or who prepare and serve food improperly. Eating utensils and tables not cleaned correctly also provide playgrounds for germs.

Food touched by customers or exposed to coughs and sneezes no doubt becomes contaminated. Those so-called sneeze guards over buffets allow most short people and small children to come into close proximity with the food and provide no protection from germs or viruses on serving utensils.

When you just can’t say no

OK, so you couldn’t pass up the shrimp and potato salad. Unbeknownst to you, the shrimp had been out too long and some people who had a stomach bug helped themselves to the potato salad without having washed their hands first. You’ve just picked up a couple of passengers, and it isn’t going to be a pleasant ride.

Symptoms of gastroenteritis can develop any time from one hour to one day after eating something bad.

Common symptoms include:

• abdominal cramps;
• nausea;
• vomiting;
• diarrhea and, eventually, dehydration.

Most cases are mild and can be treated by increasing fluid intake to two or three quarts a day with drinks like Gatorade, juice or broth. Avoid caffeine and diet soda. If vomiting is a problem, don’t eat solid foods until you are feeling better. Instead, rehydrate with small sips of clear liquids. Because motion can worsen vomiting, park and rest. Lie propped up or on your side to prevent choking on vomit during sleep.

Because most cases of gastroenteritis are viral, they must just run their course. Antibiotics will not kill them. Vomiting and bowel movements are the body’s way of shedding the virus.

If you choose to take an anti-diarrheal medication, you’ll slow down the diarrhea but the elimination of the virus is also slowed. That can cause abdominal cramps and that “sick” feeling to linger. However, the risk here may outweigh the benefits for an over-the-road driver.

Seek medical help if you have:

• severe abdominal pain;
• a temperature of 102 or higher;
• bloody stools;
• shortness of breath;
• rapid heart rate;
• persistent dizziness; or
• vomiting and/or diarrhea for more than three days.

There’s no need to boycott buffets; just choose with care. If the buffet looks messy, smells stagnant or is overcrowded, choose a quick menu item instead.

Also, remember to wash your hands before you eat and after you use the bathroom. Notify the server if your table or silverware is dirty. Use a straw instead of drinking from a glass. And if you get sick, start immediately replacing fluids lost through vomiting and diarrhea. You’ll be off the porcelain throne and back in your air-ride seat in no time. LL

Cara Reed, M.S.N., lives in Old Forge, PA, and is a registered nurse and clinical nurse specialist in adult/geriatric health. She currently practices in a skilled-nursing rehab center. Cara is the wife, daughter and sister of truckers and has always been interested in the trucking industry and, in particular, truckers’ health habits.

Buddies in the 'boo-fay' battle


Packing a kit that includes a few over-the-counter products, including nonprescription medications, can get you through the battle against most travel ailments. And, remember, brand names are not necessarily the words to look for on the packaging. It’s the active ingredients that really count. The following are useful when gastroenteritis attacks.

Pepto Bismol (active ingredient: bismuth)

This is useful for heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach, nausea and mild diarrhea. It does not need to be refrigerated and comes in liquid and tablets.

Imodium (active ingredient: loperamide)

This is the “big gun” for serious diarrhea. Be warned: It works by slowing intestinal contractions, so it can cause constipation.

Milk of magnesia

This is for when the Imodium does too good a job, and it comes in tablets, so you can better plan your access to modern facilities.

Maalox and/or Mylanta

These are great for instant heartburn relief. They work by neutralizing the acid already in your stomach, do not need to be refrigerated, and are available in liquids and tablets.

Zantac (active ingredient: ranitidine) or Pepcid (active ingredient: famotidine)

These reduce the amount of acid produced in your stomach. Great to take before eating spicy foods. If you have had a round of gastroenteritis and not eaten much, these will give your stomach a break by reducing acid production.

Gas-X (active ingredient: simethicone)

This will help relieve gas buildup, bloat and related cramps.

Antibacterial soap or hand gel

Frequent handwashing is the single most important thing you can do to prevent getting a stomach bug, spreading it, or reinfecting yourself.

Preparation H Cooling Gel or Vaseline

These can soothe the painful rectal burn that diarrhea leaves. For truckers, these can be as important as an air-ride seat when it comes to making bounces more bearable. LL