Foodborne Illness

“We had about 350 guests at our wedding.  It was a beautiful day in late May, and we had a full roast beef dinner with all the trimmings served in the evening.  A great time was had by all, and then we took off the next day for our honeymoon in Mexico.  These were pre-social media and cell phone days, so we had no idea…

When we returned home, we found out that about three-fourths of our guests became ill with vomiting and diarrhea from foodborne illness within the next few days.  It was short-lived and bearable for them, but, of course, they all wondered if we were sick.  Montezuma’s revenge is always a danger too in Mexico, so our dear friends and family were concerned for our gastro-intestinal welfare while we were honeymooning. 

Perhaps it was the greatest wedding gift of all, but we didn’t get sick after the wedding.  We still feel terrible that so many of our guests did.”

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Even though America’s food supply is among the safest in the world, there are still approximately 48,000 cases of foodborne illness annually.  This equates to one in 6 Americans experiencing such illness each year, which result in 128,000 hospitalizations, and approximately 3,000 deaths.

Summer is peak season for foodborne illness.  There are two reasons:

  1. Outdoor cooking activities increase, especially camping.  Such activities do not typically provide the safety controls that a kitchen provides—especially thermostat controlled cooking, refrigeration and washing.  Then, the food is presented and consumed outdoors in the higher summer temperatures
  2. Bacteria grow faster in warmer temperatures.

Outdoor barbecues and potlucks typically involve food sitting out in the heat.  Measures can be taken to control the temperature even when sitting out, but greater care and vigilance must be exercised in order to do so.

When eating at an outdoor potluck or barbecue, be aware of the temperatures of perishable food, and what their ideal temperature should be if you were eating them indoors when they were freshly prepared.

Ideally, perishable food temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees should be avoided.  Hot food should be kept hotter than 140 degrees, and cold food should be kept colder than 40 degrees.

Refrigeration decreases the multiplication of bacteria, and freezing further slows, or even stops this growth.  However, when food is thawed, the bacteria can become active again.  Thoroughly cooking food kills the bacteria.

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The good news is that most healthy people have immune systems that can fight off any bad effects of food that is compromised.  Just as our immune systems do their best to fight off viruses and other illnesses, so too do they fight food-borne illnesses.  Therefore, people seldom get sick from them.

There are certain groups of people who are more at risk for food-borne illness, including:

  • infants and children
  • pregnant women and the fetus
  • older adults
  • people with weakened immune systems

Not only are these groups more at risk, they are also more likely to demonstrate more severe symptoms and complications.

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The most common symptoms of food-borne illness include:

  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • abdominal pain
  • fever
  • chills

These symptoms may range from mild to severe, and can last from a few hours to a few days.

If any of the following symptoms are present, a healthcare provider should be consulted immediately:

Signs of dehydration, including:  excessive thirst, infrequent urination, dark colored urine, lethargy, dizziness or faintness.

In infants or young children, this may include:  dry mouth and tongue, lack of tears when crying, no wet diapers for 3 hours or more, high fever, unusually cranky or drowsy behavior, sunken eyes, cheeks or soft spot on the skull.

Another sign of dehydration in people of any age is when their skin does not flatten back to normal right away after being gently pinched and released.

  • prolonged vomiting that prevents keeping liquids down
  • diarrhea for more than 2 days in adults or more than 24 hours in children
  • severe pain in the abdomen or rectum
  • a fever higher than 101 degrees
  • stools containing blood or pus/black and tarry stools
  • nervous symptom symptoms, including:  headache, tingling or numbness of the skin, blurred vision, weakness, dizziness, paralysis
  • Signs of Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), an extremely rare disease that mostly affects children younger than 10 years of age.

Most symptoms are temporary, but the most severe that require medical attention can cause lifelong, chronic health problems, so it is best to get immediate help.

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As with any illness, prevention is always the best medicine.  Properly cleaning, handling, cooking and storing foods are the best strategies:

  • Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot.  Refrigerators should be set at 40 degrees or lower; freezers at 0 degrees.
  • Perishable foods left at room temperature for more than two hours are at greater risk.
  • Wash all fruits before eating.
  • Fruits should be cleaned on the outer skin before they are being cut, even if the skin is not being eaten.  Dragging a clean knife through a watermelon can introduce all manner of germs from the outer rind into the edible flesh.
  • Scrub firm-skin vegetables with a brush under running water before cooking or eating raw.
  • Separate raw meats from other foods to avoid cross-contamination from the juices and residue.
  • Wash hands before and after handling foods.
  • Wash utensils and surfaces before and after food preparation in hot, soapy water.

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As with any illness, being aware of the symptoms and when to seek medical attention is important.

This summer, when enjoying outdoor cooking and dining, keep these precautions in mind.  Again, prevention is the best medicine.

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Luckily, most of us can fend off foodborne illnesses with our healthy immune systems.  If we succumb, they are typically not severe, but be aware of the symptoms listed that require medical attention.

Most minor cases don’t last long, and are a mild illness.  The marriage described at the beginning, however, has lasted 23 years—so far.