Foodborne illness (also foodborne disease and colloquially referred to as food poisoning) is any illness resulting from the consumption of contaminated food, pathogenic bacteria, viruses, or parasites that contaminate food, as well as chemical or natural toxins such as poisonous mushrooms.
Food poisoning is a common illness that affects millions of Americans annually. It’s caused by consuming contaminated food, water, or contact with infected food handlers. This experience can be unpleasant, and it’s essential to know what it is and how to prevent it.
In this article, I’ll explain what food poisoning is, how it happens, and what you can do to prevent it. Additionally, I’ll share some tips on how to treat it if you get sick.
Food Poisoning: The Lowdown on What It Is and How to Avoid It
Food poisoning is a common illness that affects millions of Americans every year. It is caused by eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water. The main goal of food processing, preparing, and cooking is to destroy harmful molecules and bacteria that can cause food poisoning. However, if food is not properly prepared or stored, it can contain harmful bacteria that can make you sick.
Common Causes of Food Poisoning
There are many different types of food poisoning, but the most common causes include:
- Eating foods that have gone bad or are past their expiration date
- Eating undercooked or raw meat, especially ground beef
- Eating raw or undercooked eggs
- Eating rice that has been stored at room temperature for too long
- Eating foods that have been prepared in dirty or unsanitary conditions
- Drinking contaminated water
How Food Poisoning Spreads
Food poisoning can spread in a couple of different ways:
- Person-to-person contact: If someone who has food poisoning doesn’t wash their hands properly after using the bathroom, they can pass the bacteria to others through touch.
- Contaminated food: If food is not properly prepared or stored, it can contain harmful bacteria that can make you sick.
When to See a Doctor
Most cases of food poisoning will go away on their own within a few days. However, if your symptoms are severe or last longer than a few days, it’s important to see a doctor. Young children, pregnant women, and older adults are at greater risk of developing complications from food poisoning, so it’s especially important for them to seek medical attention if they feel sick.
How Your Food Gets Contaminated
Raw foods are a common source of food poisoning. Raw foods include meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs. These foods can be contaminated with bacteria or viruses that cause food poisoning. Here are some ways raw foods can become contaminated:
- During production: Some foods are produced in environments where bacteria are present, such as in soil or water. This can lead to contamination of the food during production.
- During preparation: If raw foods are not handled properly during preparation, they can become contaminated. This can happen if the food comes into contact with surfaces or utensils that are contaminated with bacteria.
- During storage: Raw foods should be stored at the right temperature to prevent bacteria from growing. If they are not stored properly, bacteria can grow and contaminate the food.
Cooked foods can also become contaminated with bacteria or viruses that cause food poisoning. Here are some ways cooked foods can become contaminated:
- Cross-contamination: If cooked foods come into contact with raw foods, they can become contaminated. This can happen if you use the same cutting board or utensils for both raw and cooked foods.
- Improper cooking: If food is not cooked to the right temperature, bacteria can survive and cause food poisoning. This is especially true for meats like beef and poultry.
- Improper storage: Cooked foods should be stored at the right temperature to prevent bacteria from growing. If they are not stored properly, bacteria can grow and contaminate the food.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables can also be a source of food poisoning. Here are some ways they can become contaminated:
- During production: Fruits and vegetables can become contaminated during production if they are grown in soil or water that contains bacteria.
- During preparation: If fruits and vegetables are not washed properly before eating, they can be contaminated with bacteria.
- Cross-contamination: Fruits and vegetables can become contaminated if they come into contact with surfaces or utensils that are contaminated with bacteria.
Water can also be a source of food poisoning. Here are some ways water can become contaminated:
- During production: Water used to irrigate crops can be contaminated with bacteria.
- During processing: Water used to process foods can become contaminated with bacteria.
- During storage: If water is not stored properly, bacteria can grow and contaminate it.
Here are some steps you can take to prevent food contamination:
- Wash your hands before preparing food.
- Wash fruits and vegetables before eating them.
- Cook food to the right temperature.
- Store food at the right temperature.
- Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw and cooked foods.
- Don’t eat raw or undercooked meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs.
- Don’t drink untreated water.
When to Seek Medical Attention
If you experience symptoms of food poisoning, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever, it’s important to seek medical attention. In some cases, food poisoning can be serious and require medical treatment. If you have a weakened immune system, are pregnant, or are young or elderly, you may be at a higher risk of complications from food poisoning.
Feeling the Effects: Recognizing the Symptoms of Food Poisoning
The symptoms of food poisoning can start anywhere from a couple of hours to a few days after eating contaminated food. The length of time that symptoms last can vary depending on the type of bacteria or virus causing the illness, as well as the individual’s health history and current health status. In general, food poisoning symptoms can last anywhere from a few hours to several days or even weeks.
Stay Safe: Preventing Food Poisoning
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before and after handling food.
- Clean all utensils, cutting boards, and surfaces with hot, soapy water before and after use.
- Rinse fruits and vegetables under running water and peel them carefully.
- Store raw meats and fish in separate containers and away from other foods in the refrigerator.
- Don’t store canned products in opened cans, transfer them to airtight containers and refrigerate.
Cooking and Storing Meat
- Cook ground beef, pork, and lamb to an internal temperature of 160°F.
- Cook whole cuts of beef, pork, and lamb to an internal temperature of 145°F.
- Store cooked meat in the refrigerator for up to four days or freeze for longer storage.
- When preparing fish, make sure it is firm and not slimy, and cook it to an internal temperature of 145°F.
- When storing fish, keep it in the coldest part of the refrigerator and use within two days.
Shopping and Eating Out
- When shopping, choose products that are not damaged or expired and avoid those that contain dents or bulges.
- When eating out, make sure the restaurant has a good reputation for food safety and service.
- Know the common symptoms of food poisoning and seek medical attention if you experience them.
- Follow the four steps of food safety: Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill.
- Keep your kitchen clean and organized.
- Use proper cutting techniques and sharp knives to prevent the spread of bacteria.
- Don’t eat raw or undercooked meat, fish, or eggs.
- Throw away leftovers that have been stored for more than four days.
- Freeze meat and poultry that won’t be used within two days.
- Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
- Set your refrigerator to 40°F or below and your freezer to 0°F or below.
- Don’t eat food that smells bad or has an unusual texture.
- When in doubt, throw it out.
When to Seek Medical Help for Food Poisoning
Food poisoning can cause a variety of symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and fever. These symptoms can range from mild to severe and can last for a few hours to several days. If you experience any of these symptoms after consuming food, it’s important to pay attention to the severity and duration of your symptoms.
What Can a Doctor Do?
If you do need to see a doctor for food poisoning, they will likely perform a physical exam and ask about your symptoms and recent food consumption. They may also order blood or stool tests to check for the presence of harmful bacteria. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, they may recommend:
- Rest and hydration
- Antibiotics to treat bacterial infections
- Intravenous fluids to treat dehydration
- Hospitalization in severe cases
So, food poisoning is a pretty serious illness that can affect millions of Americans every year. It’s caused by eating contaminated food, drinking contaminated water, or having contact with bacteria. It’s important to wash your hands properly, eat properly prepared food, and store it properly to prevent contamination. Don’t be afraid to seek medical attention if you experience any of the symptoms I’ve mentioned above.