Sharing a meal on a special occasion with family and friends means barbeques, picnics, salads, and dining alfresco. By keeping a few facts in mind, you can make sure your meals remain not just enjoyable, but safe.
David A. Birdsall, MD, emergency room medical director at John Muir Health, says that food poisoning usually happens by ingesting harmful bacteria or toxins, often when people don’t handle food safely or let the food spoil without proper refrigeration.
"We see cases that probably came from eating potato salad, fried rice, bad hamburger meat, pork, chicken, and egg dishes," he notes. Shellfish, pasta, chili, and hot dogs are also on the list of frequent offenders.
Food Poisoning Versus Stomach Flu
The abrupt onset of symptoms such as stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhea, and sometimes fever or chills can accompany either condition. Symptoms for food poisoning may appear from as early as two hours after eating to a few days after exposure.
It can sometimes be hard to differentiate between food poisoning, stomach flu, or a viral infection transmitted by person-to-person contact, according to Theophile G. Koury, MD, an emergency medicine physician at John Muir Health.
If several people eat the same food and develop similar symptoms, food poisoning may be the culprit. Testing a stool culture for bacteria and parasites may also confirm the result.
Most Food Poisoning Cases Are Mild
"Though they can cause extreme discomfort, most cases are actually not serious, and are treated in the same way," he says. "That includes rest, hydration, and perhaps anti-emetic medications for nausea. Most people do not need antibiotics."
Because of its "incubation period," food poisoning often strikes after hours or on weekends, and its acute symptoms often send people to seek help at local emergency rooms, according to Dr. Birdsall.
The good news is that most cases are mild, and those stricken are back on their feet within a day or two.
Seeing a doctor may be a good idea when you have severe symptoms, because some other illnesses — such as giardia, caused by a parasite — may need to be treated differently. Symptoms may also represent a different condition entirely, such as a chronic digestive problem like inflammatory bowel disease.
Prevent Illness with Food Safety
Experts say that one way to prevent viral, bacterial, and other illnesses is to wash your hands thoroughly before you prepare foods, after you handle raw meat or eggs, and after you visit the bathroom. Antibacterial wipes or other products may help if you are without running water.
Making sure foods are thoroughly cooked and then stored at the right temperature is also of prime importance — and is sometimes difficult in the summertime.
A common mistake people make, according to Dr. Koury, is leaving sauces and condiments, such as mayonnaise and dressings, unrefrigerated. These can provide an excellent medium for bacteria growth.
Marinating foods can also cause problems that many people are not aware of. "You should marinate in one dish, and then change to another dish and utensils for the cooked food. Salmonella may be in the first dish, and even after the food is cooked, you could re-contaminate it," he says.
Seniors and Children Are at Greatest Risk for Food Poisoning
Drs. Koury and Birdsall agree that while food poisoning can strike anyone, those at the extreme ends of the age spectrum face greater risks from it.
The elderly may have less efficient digestive systems, and less stomach acid (which destroys bacteria). "They can also get dehydrated very easily, as can children," Dr. Birdsall warns.
Children may also face more serious consequences from food poisoning. Pregnant women should be especially careful, as foodborne illness can pose a greater problem for them.
Those people with chronic health or immune system problems, such as diabetes, cancer or AIDS, can also be harder hit by foodborne illness, and be more difficult to treat.
Tips for Avoiding Food Poisoning
Increasing your awareness of situations that can cause food poisoning can help ensure that you enjoy your meals. According to the Centers for Disease Control you should:
- Cook meat, poultry, and eggs thoroughly; cook ground beef to an internal temperature of 160o F and eggs until the yolk is firm
- Separate food to avoid cross-contamination, and wash utensils and cutting boards after they have been in contact with food that may be contaminated, such as raw meat
- Refrigerate leftovers promptly if they are not going to be eaten within four hours
- Clean your hands with soap and water before preparing food for anyone else and thoroughly wash your produce
- Report foodborne illnesses to your local health department; calls from concerned citizens can stem outbreaks