Holiday Safety: Preventing Foodborne Illness

Health Professional
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During the holiday, we may be dining out more while shopping, or as we spend time in celebration. We may be grazing around the table for hours. Maybe we are traveling to areas or regions that that are less familiar to us. So, how can we prevent food poisoning during the holidays?

What is foodborne illness?

Foodborne illness, often referred to as food poisoning, is a symptomatic infection or irritation of the digestive tract caused by ingesting food or beverages containing bacteria, virus, parasites, or chemicals. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “each year, one in six Americans get sick by consuming contaminated foods or beverages.”

Who is at risk?

Like the flu, anyone can get “food poisoning," However, according to the FDA, the risk is higher among infants, children, older adults, pregnant women and their unborn children, and people with compromised immune systems. If you are among one of the high risk groups, your symptoms may be more severe and you may experience other complications.

What causes foodborne illness?

Food can become contaminated during growth or harvest, slaughter, processing, or shipping. Improper handling during preparation, improper storage, a handler with an active transmittable virus or disease, ingestion of pesticides or toxic chemicals from the source, such as poisonous mushrooms, can all cause illness.

Are certain foods considered higher risk?

According to the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, common high-risk foods include raw milk, sprouts, undercooked eggs, meat, poultry, and fish. However, other foods, like leafy greens, tomatoes, and cantaloupes, cannot be excluded. Unless there is a recall, we may not know the culprit.

How many foodborne pathogens exist?

There are reported to be more than 250 foodborne diseases. However, the bacteria and viruses that cause most illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths in the United States are salmonella, norovirus (Norwalk Virus), campylobacter, E. coli, listeria, and clostridium perfringens.

What are symptoms of food poisoning?

In most cases, symptoms of food poisoning come on suddenly. Common symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, chills, and can lead to symptoms of dehydration, such as dizziness, weakness, dry mouth, confusion, and more. Symptoms usually last a few days, but under some circumstances can last weeks, depending on the source.

If exposed, when will I feel sick?

A lot depends on what organism or irritant is involved. But in general, symptoms appear within four to 48 hours unless a parasite is present, in which case symptoms may occur up to a month later and last far longer. Travel is an important part of your medical history when parasites are suspected.

How is foodborne illness diagnosed?

You may never know what pathogen or chemical caused your symptoms. That’s why a good history of events is important. For instance, did someone else eat the same food, or at the same place, and get sick? Do you have traveler's diarrhea? If parasites are suspected, your doctor will likely ask for a stool specimen.

How is foodborne illness treated?

Treatment includes replenishing fluids to prevent dehydration. Ask your pharmacist about over-the-counter remedies. If diarrhea and/or vomiting are excessive, call your doctor, as IV fluids and electrolytes, or antibiotics, may be necessary. Under certain circumstances, life-threatening symptoms require hospitalization.

Preventing food poisoning during the holidays

The last thing we want over the holidays is to be sick. We may not be able to prevent all exposure, but we can minimize risk if we properly store, cook, clean, and handle our food. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has some great tips to follow: “7 Ways to Prevent Foodborne Illness."

_There is no love sincerer than the love of food. — _George Bernard Shaw