5 Facts to Know That Could Help You Avoid Food Poisoning
If you’re lucky, the closest you’ve come to experiencing food poisoning is when you’ve used it as a convenient (and unverifiable) excuse to get out of going somewhere or doing something you didn’t want to. If you’re not so lucky, you’ve actually experienced the dawning realization that something you’ve eaten is strongly disagreeing with your insides and making you sick. If you’re in that second category, you’re not alone: 48 million Americans every year experience some form of food poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Here are five things to know to help you stay out of that unfortunate club.
1. Most cases of food poisoning are caused by viruses and bacteria. Before we condemn all bacteria, it’s worth noting that many kinds are actually either safe or beneficial to humans. For example, one of the best-known bacterial sources of food poisoning is E. coli, the one that’s often responsible for so-called “travelers’ diarrhea.” But humans actually have certain types of E. coli living in our bodies; its specific strains that cause big problems. The most common source of bacterial food poisoning in the US is salmonella, explains Nathan Thakur, MD, family physician and Medical Director of Copeman Healthcare. Salmonella is found in contaminated eggs, contaminated fruit and vegetables (notably melons), poultry, meat, unpasteurized milk or juice, and cheese. In addition to E. coli, two other common causes of food poisoning are campylobacter and C. perfringens, both of which are usually transferred to humans in meat and poultry products made from or produced by infected livestock.
Food poisoning is also caused by viruses. The two main kinds, Dr. Thakur says, are norovirus and hepatitis A virus. You might know norovirus as “stomach flu,” but it’s not a type of the influenza virus. Bothtypes of virus are usually passed through food or drink that has been contaminated at some point in the production process, or from close contact with an infected person. Raw or undercooked shellfish is a particularly common source for both, since shellfish can contract the virus while filtering water through their system.
2. It can take days or even weeks for symptoms to show up. Contrary to common belief, the symptoms of food poisoning usually don’t come on instantly. Salmonella poisoning is one of the quickest to set in, and it can still take six to 48 hours. Two other common ones with a relatively fast onset are C. perfringens, which takes six to eight hours, and norovirus, which takes 12 to 48 hours. Others take days: Campylobacter takes two to five days, while E. coli takes one to eight days, depending on the strain. Abdominal cramps and diarrhea are common symptoms of all kinds of food poisoning, and you’ll probably also get vomiting or at least nausea, as well as a fever for norovirus. How long it lasts also depends on which bacteria or virus caused the poisoning, but in most cases, you’re looking at 24 hours up to seven to 10 days.
Hepatitis A is the unpleasant exception: Symptoms take 15 to 50 days to show, and include fever, fatigue, dark urine, joint pain, and yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), in addition to diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Recovery takes longer than other types of food poisoning: Up to two months for most people, but possibly as long as six months. On the bright side, getting through hepatitis A once gives you immunity to it, so that’s, er, something to look forward to.
3. Food poisoning is more dangerous to some people than others. Whether food poisoning is considered dangerous, depends on “the severity of the symptoms, the possibility of dehydration and nutritional deficiencies, and the ability of the body to clear the infection,” Dr. Thakur says. “Seek help if your symptoms are persistent or severe, if you have an underlying medical condition, or if there are other worrisome signs, for example, high temperature, severe abdominal pain, inability to eat or drink, bloody stool, or repeated vomiting.”
While most people without severe symptoms will get better with rest and hydration, Dr. Thakur cautions that, “Individuals who have a weakened immune system and pregnant people can have more severe outcomes if they have food poisoning.” In these cases, and if your symptoms are very severe or not improving or it’s a young child or baby who is sick, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. If you think you might have hepatitis A, it’s possible to get a post-exposure injection — known as postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) — within two weeks of exposure.
4. Rice can give you food poisoning. Lovers of lunchtime leftovers beware: The rice you’ve been looking forward to since 10am may be harboring spores of a toxin-producing bacteria called Bacillus cereus. This bacteria either causes diarrhea or nausea/vomiting that can last for up to 24 hours. Keeping rice at high temperatures (higher than 140°F) or low temperatures (under 40°F) kills the bacteria but not the spores, which means that if you then leave it out at room temperature, the bacteria has time to grow and produce toxins. To avoid this unpleasantness, serve rice as soon as it’s been cooked, or cool it straight away (within an hour) so there’s no chance for the bacteria to build up. Only keep rice for up to a day after cooking, reheat to a high (steaming) temperature, and never reheat it more than once.
5. Bacteria love the Danger Zone. All of these bacteria thrive when left undisturbed at moderate temperatures, meaning room temperature, between 40°F and 140°F. The best way to prevent bacteria build up is heat or cold. Don’t leave perishable food out of the refrigerator for more than two hours (or one hour if it’s over 90°F). Meats are one of the biggest culprits, so cook them thoroughly: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends cooking whole cuts of pork, veal, beef, and lamb to at least 145°F (for ground meats, 160°F; for poultry, 165°F). Keep your oven on at least 325°F, and use an internal thermometer to check that the meat right in the center is at the correct temperature. This careful cooking rule also goes for eggs, which means no more runny yolks. And it’s a good idea to avoid unpasteurized milk and juices altogether. If you have any leftovers, use ice packs to cool them as quickly as possible, and put them in the refrigerator. Speaking of the refrigerator, be sure to keep raw meat separate from other foods, and disinfect and wash your hands and anything else it comes into contact with.
While proper heating and cooling usually work to stop bacteria, norovirus is more resistant to heat. The best way to prevent norovirus — and another good one for stopping bacterial infections — is to thoroughly wash produce like fruits and vegetables and to wash your hands, especially after you’ve been to the toilet, since norovirus travels in feces and vomit. If you or someone you’re looking after has norovirus, everything that could have been contaminated by their vomit or poop needs thorough cleaning (that means laundry, the toilet, etc.) If you suspect food is contaminated with norovirus, throw it away.
No one wants food poisoning on the menu, but by following these facts and rules, you can enjoy your food knowing it’s safe as well as delicious.
(Photo via Getty)