What do the following foods have in common? Chicken, beef, fresh fruits and vegetables and dairy products. They’re everyday foods of course. But sometimes one or more becomes the subject of a food recall or alert due to concerns that they may be carrying germs that cause food poisoning.
Some foods are simply more likely than others to cause food poisoning. From salmonella in chicken and eggs, to E. coli in ground beef, the fact is disease-causing germs — bacteria, viruses and parasites — sometimes find their way into our food supply and cause food poisoning.
We should be careful how we handle and prepare certain foods to prevent food poisoning and its very unpleasant symptoms. These range from stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and watery or bloody diarrhea to more serious, or even fatal, complications.
Nationwide, 1 in 6 people get sick from eating contaminated food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year, according to the CDC.
Some people are more vulnerable to food poisoning than others, including:
- Pregnant women
- Young children
- Older adults
- People with weakened immune systems
“We’re not the only country with this problem,” says Edward Paredez, MD, a gastroenterologist at Scripps. “Foodborne illness is seen all over the world, and our global food supply means that food grown or processed in other countries, could infect people in the United States and vice versa.”
There more than 250 different microbes that can cause food poisoning, according to the CDC. The most common are:
Salmonella bacteria causes about 1.2 million illnesses, 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths each year in the US. Most people infected develop diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps 12 to 72 hours after exposure. Young children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems are most vulnerable.
About 20 million get sick each year from norovirus. It is a highly contagious virus that causes vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration. Symptoms develop 12 to 48 hours after exposure. Most outbreaks occur in food service settings, such as restaurants.
Also known as C. perfringens, these are bacteria behind nearly 1 million illnesses each year in the US. Causes include poorly prepared meat and poultry, food left to stand too long. Symptoms include diarrhea and stomach cramps.
Campylobacter bacteria cause about 1.3 million illnesses each year in the US. Symptoms include diarrhea (often bloody), fever and stomach cramping. Causes include eating raw or undercooked poultry or eating something that touched it.
Staph food poisoning is caused by eating foods contaminated with toxins produced by the bacterium. Symptoms include sudden nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhea.
While not among the most common food poisoning germs, an E. coli illness can lead to hospitalization. Shiga toxin-producing E coli is most commonly associated with foodborne outbreaks.
Symptoms often include stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody) and vomiting.
In most cases of food poisoning, the symptoms last only a few days. Most people recover without complications or medical treatment.
“Staying hydrated is extremely important, since so much fluid is lost through diarrhea and, in some cases, vomiting,” Dr. Paredez says.
“I often see patients who end up in the hospital or ER with dehydration mainly because they did not maintain hydration,” he adds. “Their thinking was to stop drinking fluids because ‘It seems like it just runs right through me.’ However, even when experiencing diarrhea, it is important to continue to hydrate and drink fluid and electrolytes, as much of that is actually absorbed.”
Instead of drinking sports drinks or soda, which contain high amounts of sugar that can worsen diarrhea, consider oral rehydration solutions available from your pharmacy.
“In addition to drinking plenty of fluids, eat small, low-fat meals and get adequate rest to help your body recover,” Dr. Paredez says.
Anti-diarrheal medications may be used for mild to moderate symptoms, but may prolong certain infections, such as salmonella.
If your symptoms are severe or do not improve in a few days or if you have other concerns, consult your doctor. In some cases, prescription medications or IV fluids may be recommended.
Severe symptoms of food poisoning include:
- Blood in stools
- High fever (over 102º)
- Frequent vomiting
- Diarrhea that lasts more than three days
“If you are infected, wash your hands frequently and stay home from work or school until you have recovered,” Dr. Paredez advises. “As long as diarrhea or vomiting continues, you may still be able to spread the infection.”
In many cases, practicing food safety can greatly reduce the risk of food poisoning. Follow these easy preventive measures:
Germs that cause food poisoning can spread fast around the kitchen. “Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during and after preparing food and before eating,” Dr. Paredez says. Also, wash utensils, cutting boards and countertops with hot, soapy water. Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water.
Use separate cutting boards and plates for raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs, which can spread germs to ready-to-eat foods. Keep them separate from other foods in the fridge and when grocery shopping.
Food is safely cooked when the internal temperature gets high enough to kill germs that can make you sick. Use a food thermometer to check internal temperature.
- 145º for whole cuts of beef, pork, veal and lamb
- 160º for ground meats, such as beef and pork
- 165º for all poultry, including ground chicken and turkey
- 145º for fresh ham
- 145º for fin fish or cook until flesh is opaque
Remember to refrigerate and never to leave cooked foods at room temperature for more than two hours. Keep the refrigerator temperature below 40º. Thaw frozen food safely in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave.
If you are interested in learning more about food recalls and alerts as well as food illness outbreaks, sign up for email notices about food recalls from the FDA.