As the seasons change and warmer weather is upon us, many gatherings will involve food. For good health, it’s important to observe safe food handling and sanitation practices. Foodborne illnesses are a common, but preventable, health problem. Practicing good hygiene and knowing how certain illnesses are spread will help keep the celebrations happy – and promote health, year-round.
According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, there are more than 250 different foodborne illnesses, caused by a wide variety of bacteria, viruses, and other harmful substances that can contaminate food and be passed from one person to another. Each year, about 1 in 6 Americans – 48 million people – become ill due to these illnesses.
The bacteria, virus or toxin generally enters the body through the gastrointestinal tract by way of eating or drinking, or touching something, then putting the hands in the mouth. However, sometimes a foodborne illness develops due to a combination of factors: contamination of food or water; improper hygiene in a daycare center or a restaurant; or improper food storage or preparation.
Common symptoms of a foodborne illness include nausea, abdominal cramps, upset stomach, diarrhea, and vomiting. Depending on the type of illness contracted, you may feel better in just a day or two; but some illnesses can take up to a week to run their course. Some people can become so ill that hospitalization is necessary.
Common foodborne illnesses
The most common types of foodborne illnesses change over time, as health experts learn about the various causes and how to prevent or control their transmission. At the beginning of the century, for example, common foodborne illnesses included typhoid fever, tuberculosis and cholera, according to the CDC. These illnesses have been eliminated over the years through improved food safety and sanitation, such as pasteurization of milk, safe canning of foods, and disinfection of water supplies. Among the most common foodborne illnesses are:
• Norovirus (formerly called Norwalk agent) – also known as food poisoning or the stomach flu – is highly contagious, and spread through contaminated food, water or by touching contaminated surfaces (ie, doorknobs, faucets, kitchen counters).
• Salmonella is spread through raw food or feces. It occurs in high numbers in children under age 5, the elderly, and people with compromised immunity. It is spread primarily through cross-contamination between raw meats and prepared foods, as well as lack of proper hand-washing after handling a pet or going to the bathroom.
• E. Coli bacteria can spread through contaminated food, drinking water, or swimming water (ie, contact with urine or feces), undercooked meat, raw milk or dairy products, and person-to-person contact (such as not washing hands after going to the bathroom).
• Staph (Staphylococcal food poisoning) is primarily caused by eating contaminated milk or cheese. Staph toxins are resistant to heat and cannot be destroyed by cooking. They are frequently spread by food workers carrying the bacteria, and are present in foods prepared by hand that don’t require cooking before serving: sliced meat, puddings, sandwiches and some pastries.
• Shigella bacteria typically spreads through person-to-person, hand-to-mouth contact, when basic hygiene and handwashing habits are inadequate. Food may also be contaminated by infected food handlers who do not wash their hands with soap after using the bathroom.
Incidents of food poisoning increase during the summer because bacteria grow faster when it’s warmer, and food is more likely to be served outdoors for barbecues and picnics. Foods left in the “Danger Zone” (40 ° F to 140 ° F) can make you sick. Put leftovers in the freezer or refrigerator within two hours of cooking or one hour if above 90 ° F outdoors. Throw way any remaining perishable food that isn’t refrigerated.
Fortunately, most foodborne illnesses can be prevented with good hygiene, proper food preparation and storage, and common sense. Frequent hand-washing – while preparing food, or after using the bathroom – is one of the best preventive measures to stay healthy.
Remember that this information is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor, but rather to increase awareness and help equip patients with information and facilitate conversations with your physician that will benefit your health.
Sources: Food Safety and Inspection Service, US Department of Agriculture, www.fsis.usda.gov; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov, WebMD, www.webmd.com