food poisoning

Food Poisoning: What It Is and How to Prevent It

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 6 Americans will experience foodborne illness throughout the year. Contracting food poisoning is as simple as ingesting food that has been contaminated by some germ or toxic substance. This contamination could happen before the food is brought into a kitchen for preparation or during the food handling process. On the bright side, food poisoning is preventable and you can take steps to decrease the likelihood of you or your loved ones contracting it.

What is Food Poisoning?

Foodborne illness, foodborne disease and foodborne infection are other names for what is commonly known as food poisoning. According to the CDC, typical food poisoning symptoms are:

  • Upset stomach
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever

These symptoms do not always develop immediately after eating the food and may take anywhere from several hours to a few days to become apparent.

How Does Food Poisoning Happen?

Food poisoning happens when chemicals or toxins contaminate a food source that is then eaten by an individual. Most cases occur when bacteria, such as staphylococcus or E coli, are ingested. There are a variety of things that may cause this to happen. The intestines of meat or poultry may spread bacteria during processing. The water that is used to grow or ship food has the potential of containing waste of animals or people. Consumption of raw, undercooked or improperly stored foods, or preparation of food with unclean hands or surfaces, greatly increases the chances of consumers getting food poisoning. Finally, germs can spread to food through improper handling or preparation at grocery stores, restaurants, or even at home.

How Can I Keep Food Poisoning from Happening to Me?

The CDC has stated that there are four steps to protecting oneself from food poisoning.

Clean: It’s important to clean your hands and surfaces often. Many of the germs that contaminate food and induce food poisoning are able to survive in many places around the kitchen. Fresh fruits and vegetables should be rinsed off, and hands need to be washed for 20 seconds with soap and water at multiple stages during cooking (before, during and after) and before eating. Finally, cleaning any tool used to prepare or eat the food with hot soapy water helps to protect from food poisoning.

Separate: Both foods that need preparation and those that are ready-to-eat need to remain separate to eliminate the risk of spreading germs. This means using separate cutting boards and plates for raw ingredients, keeping raw foods and their juices from coming into contact with other foods, and keeping all raw foods separated during refrigeration.

Cook: When cooking, the internal temperature of the food needs to increase enough to kill any of the germs that can potentially cause illness. The most effective and accurate way to assess whether or not food is cooked safely is with a food thermometer. Gauging based on the color or texture of the food is not an accurate way of checking if the food has been safely prepared. The following are internal temperatures some specific foods should be prepared at:

  • 145 degrees: Whole beef, veal and lamb, fresh pork, ham and fin fish
  • 160 degrees: Ground beef, veal, pork and lamb, and egg dishes
  • 165 degrees: All poultry (including ground chicken and turkey), stuffing, leftovers and casseroles

It’s also important to note that certain foods, such as fresh pork, fresh ham, steaks, roasts, and chops, should rest for 3 minutes prior to consumption.

Chill: Any perishable food items need to be refrigerated within 2 hours, unless the outdoor temperature is over 90 degrees, in which case the food should be refrigerated within 1 hour. The temperature of a refrigerator should remain below 40 degrees. While adhering to these guidelines is important, after a specific amount of time (it varies by food item), some food needs to be thrown out since it will no longer be safe to eat.

Know Where To Go

Usually, food poisoning is not severe enough to warrant a visit to your primary care physician. If you or a loved one has symptoms that have persisted for 3 days or are fairly severe, can’t keep fluids down 24 hours after having food poisoning, or your diarrhea or vomit has blood or mucus, you should visit your primary care physician immediately. Click here to make an appointment with an Emory Healthcare primary care physician or call Emory HealthConnection at 404-778-7777 or 800-753-6679.

About Dr. Colovos

Nick Colovos, MD, received his degree from the University of Miami School of Medicine in 1993, and completed his residency in emergency medicine at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio, in 1996. His work experiences in the academic, public and private sectors of medical care have allowed him to develop a unique perspective on the business of healthcare and its delivery to patients. He currently serves as medical director for the Emory Healthcare Urgent Care and MinuteClinic Strategy and assistant clinical professor of Emergency Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta, Georgia.