Food poisoning isn’t something you want to mess with. Hours or days after eating unsafe food, you can develop an upset stomach, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever.
Food poisoning can lead to long-term health problems, too. “It can result in chronic arthritis, brain and nerve damage, and kidney failure,” said Amy Maxwell, a Banner Health infection prevention specialist in Loveland, CO. “It’s especially important for older adults, young children and people with weakened immune systems to avoid food poisoning since they are more likely to develop serious symptoms and need hospitalization.”
Unfortunately, a variety of bacteria, viruses and parasites can cause more than 250 different foodborne diseases. “We pick up these germs primarily by eating contaminated foods or foods that have been in contact with a contaminated surface,” said Maxwell.
If you’re not careful, it’s easy to spread germs in your kitchen that can cause food poisoning. “You can cross-contaminate food preparation surfaces pretty easily if you do things like chop vegetables with a knife that you used to cut raw chicken,” Maxwell said. Undercooking food or leaving food out for too long at room temperature can also lead to food poisoning.
How to prevent food poisoning
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends taking these four steps to reduce the likelihood of contaminating your food:
- Clean. Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before and after preparing food, after touching raw meat or poultry, and before eating. Wash the knives, cutting boards, countertops, sink and other items you used to prepare food with hot, soapy water.
- Separate. You’ll find the germs that can cause food poisoning most commonly on raw meat, poultry and seafood, and their juices. So, keep these foods separate from other foods when you’re grocery shopping and when you store them at home. Use separate cutting boards and utensils for these foods.
- Cook. Use a meat thermometer to make sure the internal temperature of certain foods gets high enough to kill the germs that can make you sick.
- Chill. Keep your refrigerator set below 40 degrees, so your stored food stays safe. When you thaw food, place it in the refrigerator, immerse it in a container of cold water or defrost it in the microwave. Don’t set it out on a room-temperature countertop.
What to do if you get food poisoning
Most of the time, you can manage the symptoms of food poisoning on your own. Drink water, sports drinks or broth to replace the fluids you lose. Once you feel better, you can eat your typical diet again.
The CDC recommends you see your doctor if you have:
- Bloody diarrhea or diarrhea that lasts more than three days
- Fever over 102 degrees F
- Vomiting that’s so frequent you can’t keep liquids down
- Signs of dehydration such as little urination, dry mouth and throat, or dizziness when you stand up
Maxwell said if you think you’ve gotten food poisoning, it’s essential to report it to your local health department, even if you don’t know for sure if you have food poisoning or how you got it. “Reporting an illness can help public health officials identify a foodborne disease outbreak and help keep others from getting sick,” she said.
For food poisoning caused by meat, poultry or processed egg products, call 1-888-674-6854 toll free or report it online. For all other foods, call the FDA main emergency number at 866-300-4374 or call the Consumer Complaint Coordinator in your state or area.
The bottom line
Food poisoning can be unpleasant and even dangerous, but taking the right steps when buying, storing, preparing, and cooking food can help keep you safe.
To learn more about preventing and treating food poisoning, check out these articles:
- Stomach Flu or Food Poisoning? How to Tell the Difference
- Potluck Safety 101
- 5 Tips to Prevent Dehydration When You Have Diarrhea or Vomiting