HEALTH mattersThe mother of one of my patients called me because all three of her little ones were having diarrhea and tummy cramps. They had returned from a camping trip where they had enjoyed lots of tasty foods, including chicken salad. They ate some of it immediately but left the rest out overnight. The next morning the kids finished it off and a day later the symptoms started. She wondered if it could be food poisoning.
Her hunch was probably correct.
Even though children can get food poisoning any time of year, the hot summer months are a perfect time for bacteria to breed in foods that have been improperly prepared or stored. Since many people don’t report their symptoms it is difficult to say how many cases of food poisoning occur every year. Estimates are as high as 80 million infections annually.
The good news is our food supply is generally safe.
The bad news is that more than half of all food poisoning is caused by improper cooking and storage of foods and another 24 percent by poor hygiene (not washing hands before handling food or eating). In other words, we can probably avoid most food poisoning by paying attention to how we prepare, handle and store food.
Germs are naturally found in or on all foods, but in small quantities. Cleaning foods before we eat them or cooking them thoroughly will often kill these bacteria. But when some foods are left at room temperature for long periods the germs have an opportunity to divide rapidly and that’s when illnesses can happen.
Eggs and meat often arrive from processing plants with bacteria known to cause food poisoning, so it is important to keep these foods refrigerated until just before preparing them and then cook them to their recommended internal temperature to reduce the risk of illness.
Vegetables can harbor bacteria picked up during irrigation or from the hands of harvesters. Preparing vegetables using the same knife or cutting board used to cut raw meat can contaminate the vegetables. Even if you use a different cutting board and knife, by not washing your hands you can cross contaminate the veggies. In fact, keeping your hands clean while working with food is the single most important thing you can do to prevent food poisoning.
The most common symptoms of food poisoning are diarrhea and abdominal cramping. Less commonly people will have nausea, vomiting, fever or blood in their stool or vomit. After eating infected food there is a period of hours to days before symptoms develop. That often makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly where the contaminated food was eaten. Sometimes others who ate the same food will get sick, but not always.
Children, the elderly, pregnant women, people on antibiotics and those with certain health conditions are at higher risk for food poisoning.
Usually the symptoms will run their course and go away within a day or two. It is important to give your child plenty of liquids to avoid dehydration. Contact your doctor immediately if your child has any of the following symptoms: an oral temperature of more than 101.5, extreme abdominal cramping, diarrhea lasting more than three days, cannot keep liquids down for more than 12 hours, has blood in his or her stools or vomit or has signs of dehydration such as excessive thirst, dry mouth, little or no urination, severe weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness.
Of course the best strategy is prevention. Always keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Avoid eating room temperature salads made with egg, tuna, potatoes, pasta or chicken. Do not cut meat and vegetables on the same board or with the same knife unless they have been thoroughly cleaned. Wash your hands frequently during food preparation. Don’t eat hamburgers rare and make sure chicken is cooked very well.
Remember, freezing meat doesn’t kill bacteria and other harmful microorganisms, it simply inhibits their growth. When you thaw the frozen meat, any germs present before freezing will start multiplying again. Contaminated food may or may not smell, taste or look bad so keep an eye on how long foods have been in the refrigerator and discard them by the recommended date. If a food smells bad or is slimy to the touch, throw it away. Don’t taste suspicious foods.
Even a small amount of contaminated food can cause illness. The sponge or towel you use to wipe off the kitchen counter top can become a place for bacteria to grow. To disinfect your kitchen sponge microwave on high power for 60 seconds. When cleaning up after preparing foods use soap, water and a disposable paper towel. Always wash fresh fruits and vegetables before eating them.
For more information on safe food handling, recommended internal cooking temperatures and how long to safely keep foods in the refrigerator visit www.foodsafety.gov.
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. E-mail her at drlisathornton @gmail.com.