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A Guide to Foodborne Illness

Meredith Porter, MD is a board-certified family physician with 23 years of clinical experience who is a lead physician for Inova Urgent Care services. Inova Urgent Care centers are open seven days a week and treat walk-in patients of all ages. Select centers offer specialized pediatric care with staff who are cross-trained in the pediatric emergency room (ER). Learn more about Inova Children’s Urgent Care services.

thanksgiving dinner table
Never leave cooked foods out for more than two hours at room temperature.

The holiday season is around the corner. It’s a special time to celebrate with friends, family – and lots of delicious food!  As you plan the menu for your upcoming holiday gatherings, please remember to follow food safety precautions – from shopping and preparing, to cooking and eating – to prevent foodborne illnesses. The contamination of food can lead to illness, commonly known as “food poisoning,” which affects millions of Americans each year. 

What are the Symptoms of Foodborne Illnesses?

Often, people use the terms “food poisoning,” “stomach flu,” or “stomach bug” to describe the symptoms related to foodborne illnesses. The symptoms can happen hours, days or even weeks after eating contaminated food and include:

  • Mild to severe abdominal cramping
  • Diarrhea (may be watery or bloody)
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Dehydration
  • Muscle aches

What Foods and Contaminants Cause Food Poisoning?

Any food can be contaminated along the path from farm to table. Illness can occur when food is contaminated from the environment or contact with animals. The most likely infectious causes are bacteria, viruses and parasites.

Raw contaminated foods of animal origin – such as meat, poultry and eggs – are responsible for most foodborne illness.  The bacteria and viruses responsible for most illnesses, hospitalizations or deaths in the U.S. include: Campylobacter, Clostridium perfringens, E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Norovirus and Salmonella.

Raw contaminated foods of animal origin – such as meat, poultry and eggs – are responsible for most foodborne illness. 

Chicken, Beef, Pork and Turkey

  • Raw or undercooked meat can cause serious illness.
  • Raw meat and poultry should not be washed before cooking as bacteria can be spread to other foods, utensils and surfaces and will not prevent illness.
  • Cook meat and poultry thoroughly.
  • Common bacterial contaminants in meat and poultry include: Campylobacter, Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens, E. coli.

Eggs

  • Avoid foods containing raw or undercooked eggs, such as eggnog or homemade Caesar salad dressing.
  • Cook eggs until yolk is firm.
  • Pasteurized eggs and egg products may be substituted in recipes.
  • Keep eggs refrigerated.
  • Discard cracked eggs.
  • Avoid tasting uncooked batter or dough.
  • The most common bacterial contaminant in eggs is Salmonella.

Unpasteurized (Raw) Milk and Cheeses

  • Unpasteurized (raw) milk and products made with it, such as soft cheeses (Brie, blue-veined, queso blanco or fresco), ice cream and yogurt can cause illness.
  • Pasteurization uses heat to destroy harmful bacteria while keeping nutritional benefits.
  • Bacteria such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria may be present.

Raw Shellfish  

Raw or undercooked fish, shellfish or seafood may cause foodborne infections, including Norovirus.

person taking a cherry tomato from a bowl on a communal lunch table

Fruits and Vegetables

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables cause nearly half of foodborne illness in the U.S. because of bacteria on the produce, such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria.
  • Choose undamaged produce.
  • Keep pre-cut produce refrigerated.
  • Avoid cross contamination with raw meat, poultry or seafood.
  • Clean produce thoroughly.
  • Raw sprouts (alfalfa, bean) may cause illness.

How are Foodborne Illnesses Diagnosed?

Most foodborne illnesses can be diagnosed based on symptoms and a history of food recently eaten. If the symptoms are mild and improving, looking for a cause may not be necessary. If symptoms are severe, lasting a long time or getting worse, stool testing can help find the cause of diarrheal infections and identify outbreaks.

Your doctor will order the stool culture, if needed. Local health departments may help to determine if illnesses are due to community outbreaks.

How Can Foodborne Illnesses be Prevented?

Never leave cooked foods out for more than two hours at room temperature.

Prevention is the best first step to fighting illnesses spread through food sources. Here are some prevention tips to lower your risk:

  • Wash your hands. Hand washing is essential before working with food products.
  • Store food properly. Improper food storage, handling, cooking, or reheating can increase the risk of infections. 
  • Clean your food preparation area thoroughly.
  • Separate foods to prevent cross contamination: Raw meat, fish and poultry should be prepared separately from other foods.
  • Wash raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Refrigerate foods promptly, and never leave cooked foods out for more than two hours at room temperature.
  • Thaw frozen foods safely in the refrigerator, in cold water or microwave.  Never thaw on the counter.
  • Thoroughly cook raw food from animal sources to safe temperatures, and check the temperature by using a food thermometer:
    • 145° F for pork, veal and lamb
    • 145° F for fresh ham
    • 160° F for ground meats, beef and pork
    • 165° F for all poultry, including ground chicken and turkey
    • 165° F for leftovers and casseroles

How are Foodborne Infections Treated? Can an Antibiotic Help Me Feel Better?

Antibiotics are not recommended for treating most foodborne infections. If you contract a foodborne illness, treating the symptoms is most important. Here are some helpful tips to consider:

  • Avoid over-the-counter antidiarrheal medications, such as Imodium and Pepto-Bismol – especially for children.
  • Medications can be used to treat nausea if significant vomiting is present.
  • Rehydration by oral fluids can prevent and treat dehydration in all ages. Oral rehydration solutions can be used, such as Pedialyte, Hydralyte, apple juice diluted with water or oral rehydration packets.
  • Avoid juice, sodas and sports drinks.
  • Rehydration with IV fluids may be needed in people with severe dehydration.

Foods to Eat When You Have Diarrhea

  • The “BRAT” diet:
    • Bananas
    • Rice
    • Apples
    • Toast
  • Jell-O, broth, crackers, cooked cereals
  • As symptoms improve, add soft cooked eggs, sherbet, cooked vegetables, white chicken or turkey meat.

Foods to Avoid When You Have Diarrhea:

  • Milk and dairy products for three days
  • Fried, fatty, greasy and spicy foods
  • Raw vegetables
  • Citrus fruits
  • Alcohol
  • Coffee and caffeinated sodas 

Article from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC): Safe Handling and Food Preparation Tips

Inova Urgent Care wishes you and your family a peaceful and safe holiday season.

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