food poisoning

Food Poisoning: What It Is and How to Prevent It

meat and vegetables on grillAccording 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.

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.

Know Where to Go

Knowing where to go when you’re ill makes a big difference. But it can get confusing. Know where to go to get the right care at the right time. Your primary care doctor knows your medical history best, but the Emory Healthcare Network also includes Peachtree Immediate Care Urgent Care and CVS MinuteClinics, hundreds of primary care locations and 6 ERs throughout metro Atlanta. Get the care you need wherever you need it. See our map to find the locations closest to you.

Talk to Our Nurses

If you’re not sure if a trip to the ER is needed, call your family doctor or the Emory HealthConnection where registered nurses can help you find a location or specialist that’s right for you. Call 404-778-7777 from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST (M-F).

What You Should Know About the Stomach Flu

Everyone on the planet has had or will have stomach flu. Would you be surprised to know that stomach flu isn’t really flu at all? It’s actually a virus (norovirus) — and it’s highly contagious.

Stomach flu spreads from infected feces or vomit. Yuck, right? The best way to protect yourself and your family is for everyone to wash their hands often and well. If you’re changing diapers or cleaning up after a sick kid, clean up after yourself, too.

This bug spreads easily and is often picked up when we touch hard surfaces used by many (doorknobs, sink faucets, cutting boards). The best ways to keep things clean and virus-free are to:

  • Stay away from food-prep areas if you’re sick or recovering.
  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water — hand sanitizers don’t do as good of a job.
  • Wear gloves to do laundry.
  • Use disinfectant cleaners generously to kill viruses on hard surfaces such as counters, doorknobs and light switches.

Stomach Flu Symptoms

With a stomach virus, symptoms come on slowly over one to two days. Norovirus symptoms may include:

  • Cramps or aching belly
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

These symptoms are similar to food poisoning symptoms. The easiest way to detect the difference is to note whether your symptoms came on fast or if they progressed slowly over a few days. If they hit fast, it could be food poisoning, which is caused by bad bacteria like salmonella.

Getting Better

The good news about stomach flu and food poisoning is they usually run their course in a day or two. But while you’re suffering, it’s important to stay hydrated. Replace the minerals lost through diarrhea and vomiting by drinking fluids that contain electrolytes — just steer clear of sports drinks that have a lot of sugar and salt.

Once you’re feeling better, keep your diet light for a few days with foods that are easy to digest.

Know Where to Go

If you or someone in your family has stomach flu symptoms for more than three days, visit your primary care physician (PCP). Other reasons to see your PCP include:

  • Bloody stool or vomit.
  • Lack of urine or dark urine, which may mean dehydration.
  • Oral temperature of over 101.5 °F.

Your doctor knows you and your family’s health history and can probably see you fast. Another plus to seeing your PCP? A low co-pay.

If a stomach bug strikes after doctor’s office hours or during peak flu time, you can get the care and attention you need at an urgent care center. Learn more about Emory Healthcare Network’s partnerships with organizations such as CVS MinuteClinics and Peachtree Immediate Care urgent care. Combined, these partners provide more than 70 locations throughout metro Atlanta and surrounding counties and put convenient care where you need it, 7 days a week and no appointment necessary.

When to Go to the ER

It’s time for the ER if you or someone in your care is suffering with:

  • A temperature over 102 °F for more than 2 days that doesn’t respond to medicine.
  • Severe dehydration (symptoms include dark urine or lack of urine).

If you take your child to the ER, have key information ready for the nurse or doctor. Keep track of when symptoms started, how they progressed, how long a fever or rash has lasted, how often your child has gone to the bathroom, any medications, who they’ve been in contact with, and any other health concerns. Bring water, snacks and a toy for your child.

If you’re not sure, call your family doctor or Emory HealthConnection to speak to an Emory nurse at 404-778-7777.