Expert tips for avoiding foodborne illness

Every year there are tens of millions of cases of foodborne illness, one of the most common conditions seen by medical professionals according to Dr. Ross Rodgers, an emergency medicine physician at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. In fact it is so common it often goes undiagnosed or is confused for a stomach bug, with symptoms including nausea and vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. But there are a few ways to reduce your risk of getting sick from what you consume.

While some cases are caused by eating out, others come from cooking at home, and even more come from contact with someone already infected due to foodborne illnesses being highly contagious.

“Most cases are self-limited and will resolve over the course of days,” says Dr. Brian McAllister, a gastroenterologist at Hershey Medical Center, who advises patients to stay well-hydrated and follow a bland, low-fat diet for a few days.

However, if the symptoms come alongside fevers, bloody or inflammatory diarrhea, severe pain, or signs of dehydration such as dizziness, increased heart rate, muscle ache or fatigue, it’s time to seek medical attention, and children and those who have chronic illnesses or suppressed immune systems should visit their doctor even sooner.

Although it can be difficult to avoid ever coming down with a foodborne illness, both doctors suggest the following safety tips to minimize your risk.

  1. Follow basic hygiene rules when handling food. “If all of us washed our hands and were careful with food, it would greatly reduce the number of infections we see,” says Rodgers.
  2. Don’t use leftover marinade on cooked foods or use utensils that touched uncooked food to serve prepared items.
  3. Use a meat thermometer to ensure that the meat is cooked to the appropriate temperature to kill any viruses or bacteria.
  4. Although most people know to be careful with raw meat, seafood, poultry and eggs, some are not aware that the same types of viruses and bacteria can be present on produce and other types of food, so wash produce and leafy greens.
  5. Summertime means more picnics and more cookouts, and this can also mean more time for food to spend sitting around. It’s crucial to keep food refrigerated, especially in warmer weather, and not let it sit out for more than two hours. When temperatures pass the 32-degree Celsius mark, the time food can stay out decreases to just an hour.

When eating out, Rodgers recommends going with your gut feeling. “If the place seems clean and tidy, they probably follow good practices with their food. If it looks a bit shady, I would move to another place.”
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Photo credit: Champja / iStock

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