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Food Poisoning — The Basics

Contributors: Esther Ellis, MS, RDN, LDN

Published: February 26, 2021

Reviewed: February 08, 2021

food poisoning collage

What is Food Poisoning?

Food poisoning (also known as foodborne illness or foodborne disease) is an illness caused by bacteria or other pathogens in food. Food poisoning causes an estimated 48 million illnesses (1 out of 6 Americans) with 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Who Is at Risk for Food Poisoning?

Everyone has some risk of getting food poisoning, but some people are at greater risk of developing serious illness with long-term effects. These high-risk groups include older adults, infants and young children, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems and chronic illness such as diabetes, kidney disease, HIV/AIDS and some cancer patients.

Causes of Food Poisoning

The top five pathogens accounting for the vast majority of food poisoning outbreaks include: Norovirus, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter and Staphylococcus aureus. Food poisoning also can result from foods or drinks that are contaminated with Escherichia coli (E.Coli), Listeria and Clostridium botulinum (or botulism) and result in severe reactions requiring hospitalization.

Food Poisoning Symptoms

The symptoms and severity of food poisoning vary, but common symptoms include upset stomach, abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, fever and dehydration.

Long-Term Risks and Side Effects

Although long-term risks of food poisoning are relatively rare, they can be very serious when they do happen, resulting in problems such as kidney failure, chronic arthritis and brain or nerve damage. In extreme cases, foodborne illness can result in death.

How to Reduce the Risk of Food Poisoning

You can significantly reduce your risk of food poisoning by handling food properly and following four easy steps:

  • Wash. Wash your hands, all surfaces and utensils used to prepare food and all fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Separate. Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs separate from ready-to-eat foods.
  • Cook. Use a food thermometer to make sure foods are cooked to the appropriate internal temperature.
  • Refrigerate. Store perishable foods at or below 40°F within two hours. If the surrounding temperature is above 90°F, then refrigerate within one hour.

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