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You probably know you shouldn't nibble cookie dough straight from the bowl, and to cook your chicken so it's no longer pink in the middle. On top of that, it seems every week brings word of a new foodborne illness scare—Salmonella in cereal, E. coli in spinach and Listeria in ice cream. It may seem that these notices and subsequent cases of food poisoning are happening more frequently. In reality, however, regulatory agencies and food manufacturers are just better than ever at catching them.
Food poisoning is an umbrella term for illnesses caused by a wide variety of bacteria, viruses, parasites, even toxins and chemicals. Food poisoning can happen just as easily in your own kitchen as it can in a grocery store or at a restaurant. The best way to prevent food poisoning is to educate yourself about risk factors and learn how you can prevent contamination in your own home.
Here, factors that increase your risk, as well as the symptoms and signs you should watch for, steps you can take when you cook to reduce your odds of getting sick, and what to do if you do find yourself with telltale tummy troubles.
Read More: 5 Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Food Poisoning
What is food poisoning?
Food poisoning is an illness that can be caused by a wide variety of bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins and chemicals. Each year, more than 48 million Americans fall ill because of food poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Around 3,000 people die as the result of their illness.
With numbers that high—one in six Americans will experience a foodborne illness each year—it's no wonder people look for ways to avoid bad food and drinks. Unfortunately, avoiding food poisoning isn't as easy as skipping a certain food or spraying down sinks with bleach water every night.
The bacteria and bugs that cause food poisoning can be difficult to kill. They also spread rapidly if the environment is right. Smart food-safety practices can help you prevent contamination in your house.
Keep Reading: The 10 Commandments of Food Safety
Is all food poisoning the same?
Food poisoning is a catchall term for a variety of illnesses caused by pathogens. Each pathogen—the CDC has identified more than 250—has its own incubation period, symptoms, complications and possible sources.
The most common symptoms of food poisoning, however, are similar across several illnesses. They include:
- stomach cramps
- upset stomach
- low-grade fever
Additionally, two people may be made ill by the same pathogen from the same food source—you could eat the same spinach as another person—and you two may experience different symptoms. That's because several factors play into determining the symptoms you experience, as well as how severe they are. These factors include how much you ate and your overall health.
Older adults, infants, pregnant women and individuals with a compromised immune system may have more severe symptoms of food poisoning if they come into contact with these pathogens. Members of these at-risk groups may need to seek medical treatment earlier in the illness.
What are the most common foodborne illnesses?
The list of pathogens that could make you ill if you consume them is long, but Toby Amidor, M.S., RD, Wall Street Journal best-selling cookbook author and food-safety expert, says these five rank at the top of the list:
The bacteria Salmonella cause salmonellosis, an infection with symptoms including diarrhea, fever and vomiting. Symptoms may first appear 12 to 72 hours after infection, and they can last for four to seven days.
The most common food sources of Salmonella bacteria are raw or undercooked chicken, turkey, pork, beef and fish. Salmonella may also lurk in products made from those animals, such as eggs, raw milk and cheese.
Escherichia coli (E. coli) are typically harmless bacteria that exist naturally in our intestines. One strain of this bacteria can cause food poisoning and severe illness if it's consumed. More than one-third of E. coli infections are caused by this more potent strain known as E. coli O157:H7. Symptoms of an infection include diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and fever. Most symptoms will show up within 24 to 72 hours after infection, and the illness may last up to a week.
Rarely, E. coli infection can be deadly and cause life-threatening symptoms, including bloody diarrhea, severe fatigue and kidney failure. If you have symptoms of an E. coli infection that last more than three days, make an appointment to see your doctor. You may need to be treated before symptoms become dangerous.
Common sources of E. coli bacteria include raw and undercooked beef, unpasteurized milk and juice, raw apple cider and raw vegetables.
These bacteria are spread through contact with feces. This contact may come from eating food that's been handled by someone who carries the bacteria on their hands. It may also be the result of poor personal hygiene and contaminating surfaces in your home kitchen. (A great reason to be sure you wash your hands after using the restroom, that's for sure.)
Symptoms of shigellosis include diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps. The symptoms may start within 24 to 48 hours after you're infected, and they can last four to seven days.
Norovirus is a highly contagious virus that is a leading cause of food poisoning. This resulting illness is commonly described as "stomach flu." It's not related to influenza (that's caused by a different virus), but is the result of eating food contaminated with norovirus, including raw produce, improperly handled cooked or reheated foods, shellfish and more.
Norovirus causes vomiting and diarrhea, and it's more common in winter months. That's why it's sometimes referred to as "winter vomiting bug."
Unlike the previous four foodborne illnesses, hepatitis A attacks the liver instead of the gastrointestinal system. Hepatitis A is spread through fecal contamination of food or water. Foods that may carry the virus include raw fruits and vegetables, shellfish and undercooked foods.
With a hepatitis A infection, you won't experience typical food poisoning symptoms. Instead, you may develop fatigue, low appetite, stomach pain and jaundice (yellowing of the skin). Symptoms may first appear 15 to 50 days after you're infected.
Once you're infected, your body makes antibodies to protect against a future infection. However, a hepatitis A vaccine does exist and could prevent a first infection.
How does food poisoning occur?
Bacteria live all over your body. Most thrive, spread and die without causing any issues. However, from time to time, some of these bacteria make their way into you mouth and can make you ill.
The most common source of food poisoning is food that has not been cleaned or cooked properly or food that was handled by someone with dirty hands.
Bacteria, viruses and parasites can be introduced at almost any point in the food manufacturing process—from the farms where it grows to the counter where it's prepped to be cooked. If the food is not washed and handled properly, you could be infected. Raw foods are of particular concern because they are not cooked before they're consumed, so the bacteria will remain.
At low temperatures (below 40°F) and at high ones (above 140°F), bacteria cannot multiply or are killed entirely. If your fridge or freezer is too warm, you may create a perfect atmosphere for bacterial growth. "The temperature range between 40°F and 140°F is considered the 'danger zone,' the range of temperatures where bacteria grow rapidly," says Summer Yule, M.S., RDN, a professional food manager based in Connecticut. "This is why perishable foods should only be kept in this range for a limited time."
Hot temperatures will kill off most foodborne pathogens, but if you don't get the foods hot enough, they could live on and make you sick. This is a concern with meats, seafood and animal products in particular.
E. coli and Shigella can be passed by unclean hands. Once contaminated with feces, your hands can spread these dangerous pathogens to any counter, handle, utensil or surface you touch. Washing your hands after you use the restroom, before you cook and before you eat can help you prevent food poisoning.
Which foods are most likely to be contaminated?
Photo: Marc chwÃ¤r/Getty
Any and all foods can be contaminated and ultimately make you sick. Some are just more likely to have unwanted bacteria and viruses than others.
Each foodborne pathogen has foods where it likes to lurk, but there are some common culprits. These include:
- raw and undercooked meats, including chicken, pork, beef and fish
- raw eggs
- raw or unpasteurized milk
- raw shellfish
- raw fruits and vegetables, specifically seeded vegetables
Flour was the target of several food recalls in recent years. E. coli found its way into the product—likely from the fields where the wheat plants were growing—and the flour was making people ill.
"The wheat used to make flour can be contaminated while growing in the field or in the factory during production," Yule says. "Flour is generally sold as a raw product which has not been treated to kill bacteria. The bacteria are generally killed when the flour is cooked."
However, Yule says, raw dough—like the little nibbles of raw cookie dough you sneak when baking a batch—can harbor the bacteria.
"The CDC recommends that people do not eat any raw dough and also recommends that children do not play with raw dough for crafts," she says.
Even manufactured foods like cereal aren't necessarily safe from foodborne pathogens. Yule explains bacteria can be introduced into the supply chain almost anywhere. Testing, however, is what helps manufacturers spot the problem.
"Cereal can be contaminated during production, but we don't cook cold cereals after we bring them home," she says. "Since foods contaminated with Salmonella tend to look and smell normal, it is important to pay attention to the food recalls."
Related: 6 Common Myths About Freezing Food
How to treat food poisoning
Most cases of food poisoning will subside in a matter of days without any medical treatment. When you're ill, you should focus on resting and staying hydrated.
If you're vomiting or have diarrhea, hydration is especially important. Without adequate fluid intake, you could become dehydrated. That will make the food poisoning and symptoms worse and could lead to life-threatening complications.
If you can drink fluids without vomiting them up, try to drink water or an electrolyte-enhanced beverage like a sports drink. Stick to drinks with low sugar content—the sugar can upset your sensitive stomach.
Rarely, food poisoning cases require hospitalization. If you've been sick with symptoms for more than three days, you should contact your doctor. Other warning signs of a serious infection include:
- high fever (higher than 101.5°F)
- blood in stool
- disorientation or confusion
- frequent vomiting
- signs of dehydration (urinating very little, rapid breathing, fast heartbeat, very dry skin)
Yule also recommends you contact your local city or county health department if you think you have become ill from a certain food or restaurant. This can raise flags of a potential problem with health experts across the city, state and country.
"It is a good idea to write down what you ate over the past week, as this will help health officials identify the source of an outbreak," Yule says. "You can throw out the food that made you ill, but the CDC recommends hanging on to the food label or original packaging. This makes it easier to track where the food came from."
How to prevent food poisoning at home
The key to preventing food poisoning in your own kitchen is to be vigilant about possible problem areas and take action where needed. These eight steps can help you prevent illness:
Thaw meat properly
"Bacteria grow best at temperatures between 40°F and 135°F. This is around the temperature of your kitchen," Amidor says. "When you leave food to defrost overnight on the countertop, it gives the bacteria the opportunity to multiply in such high amounts that even cooking won't necessarily make the food safe to eat." Amidor says other potential triggers of this hazardous bacterial growth include leaving leftovers on the counter too long, cooling foods for long periods of time and not cooking food to the proper internal temperatures.
Cook foods properly
Eggs and all ground meats should be cooked to 160°F. Safe internal temperatures for other cuts of meat range from 140°F to 165°F, according to the FDA. And it's not just the first round of cooking you need to be concerned with. Reheat leftovers to 165°F to make sure you kill off any blooming bacteria. "Proper temperature cannot be told by visual cues," Amidor says. "Rather, it's best determined by using a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the food."
Slice into a fresh melon without washing it, and you could introduce a host of bad-for-you bacteria to the fruit. "It's easy for bacteria to hide in the nooks and crannies of netted melons, such as cantaloupe," Yule says. "They should be scrubbed well with a produce brush before cutting. It may be best to cut the melon in half with a knife and use a melon baller to scoop the seeds and flesh from the halves. Running the knife through the flesh and rind repeatedly to cut wedges creates more opportunity for bacteria to be spread from the rind to the flesh."
"One of the easiest ways to keep on top of food recalls at home is to monitor the FDA's food safety RSS feed," Yule says. You can also download the FoodKeeper app, which tells you when a food is still safe to consume, how you should store it and when it might be time to throw it away.
Store foods properly
"Store raw produce like spinach away from raw meat in the fridge," Yule says. If need be, repackage foods like raw meats in glass dishes to prevent drips and leaks of bacteria-contaminated juices. Store the meat on the bottom shelf too. There, it's cooler, darker and spills fall onto the bottom of the fridge, not other food. Amidor also says anything prewashed or anything you wash once you get home should be stored in the fridge. Moisture is a feeding ground for bacteria, so reduce their chances of survival.
This happens when you transfer microorganisms from one surface to the other. You might do this if you use the same cutting board and knife to trim lettuce as you do to slice chicken. "Clean hands and counters well with hot, soapy water before preparing food," Yule says. "Avoid cross-contamination of foods by using a separate cutting board and a clean knife for produce." Do you need to rewash the prewashed fruits and vegetables you buy at the grocery store? No, says the CDC and FoodSafety.gov. If the package doesn't say it's washed, however, you need to rinse it well before cooking or eating it.
Refrigerate food promptly
Dinner leftovers and picnic foods should not linger outside the fridge. "Perishable food should be refrigerated within two hours, one hour if the weather is hot," Yule says. Outside that window, bacteria begin to flourish.
Wash your hands
"Lots of people do not follow good personal hygiene practices in the kitchen," Amidor says. "This includes washing hands before starting a new task, after using the restroom and after touching raw meat and poultry. Having good personal hygiene habits in the kitchen can help keep you and your family safe."
How to prevent food poisoning when dining out
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A great deal of this is out of your control—sorry!—but that doesn't mean you have to throw your hands up in despair. These three steps can help you protect yourself and your family from a possible foodborne illness when you're not eating and cooking in the comforts of your own home:
Don't order rare steaks and burgers
The recommended minimum temperature for cuts of beef, such as steak, is 145°F; however, some food-safety experts say you can be extra cautious and cook to 165°F. When you're ordering steak or burger at a restaurant, order at least a medium-rare steak, if not more well-done, Yule says.
Look for the grade (and just plain look around)
"Many restaurants now have letter grades in cities like New York and LA. Choose 'A' grade restaurants," Amidor says. "You also want to look at the restroom: Is it kept clean if it is busy? Are the seating areas clean? If you can see behind the counter, are items labeled and kept in closed, neat packages? Do the uniforms look clean and employees look well-kept?"
Handle your leftovers properly
If you just couldn't finish that last portion of pasta, package it up and carry it home. But get it in the fridge as soon as possible. Remember, the clock started ticking as soon as the food was plated. You need to get your leftovers in the fridge and cooling below the "danger zone" threshold as soon as possible.