Professional Opinion

Professional Opinion: How can I avoid getting food poisoning from fast food or eating on the go?

Dr. Amanda Parks is an infectious disease specialist at Hilton Head Hospital.
Dr. Amanda Parks is an infectious disease specialist at Hilton Head Hospital. Submitted

This week, Dr. Amanda Parks, an infectious disease specialist at Hilton Head Hospital, discusses food poisoning.

Question: We've been hearing a lot lately about food poisoning after a national fast food restaurant chain was linked to both an E.coli and norovirus breakout. How can we prevent food-borne illnesses at home or on the go?

Answer: Food-borne illness, or food poisoning, occurs when you consume contaminated food or beverages with a variety of germs like bacteria, viruses, parasites, or toxic substances like molds and contaminants.

One in 6 Americans are affected a year by 1 or more of 250 different foodborne diseases including E.coli, Salmonella, Listeria and Norovirus.

Once the contaminated food in ingested, the toxin enters the body through the gastrointestinal tract. Sometimes there is a delay before symptoms of food poisoning begin. This delay may range from hours to days, depending on the germ and on how many germs you swallowed. The most common symptoms of food poisoning are nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea.

Raw foods of animal origin are the most likely to be contaminated. This includes raw meat and poultry, raw eggs, unpasteurized milk and raw shellfish.

Raw fruits and vegetables can be of concern but washing can decrease contamination. At home while you are preparing meals, microorganisms can be transferred from one food to another by using the same knife, cutting board or utensil to prepare both without washing the surface or utensil in between.

There are four key steps to follow to keep you and your family safe from food-borne illnesses: clean, separate, cook and chill.

You need to clean fresh fruits and vegetables. Wash your hands and surfaces often because germs can survive in many places around your kitchen including utensils and cutting boards. Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from ready-to-eat foods even after you’ve cleaned your hands and surfaces thoroughly.

Cook to the right temperature. People often consider food “done” by checking its color and texture, but there’s no way to be sure it’s safe without following a few important but simple steps. Use a food thermometer to ensure that foods are cooked to a safe internal temperature: 145°F for whole meats, 160°F for ground meats, and 165°F for all poultry. Refrigerate your food promptly. Germs can grow in many foods within 2 hours unless you refrigerate them properly.

Most illnesses will clear out of the body within two or three days. You should contact your doctor if you have high fever, blood in the stool, prolonged vomiting, signs of severe dehydration and feeling dizzy when standing up.

Hydration is key. Drinking at least 64 fluid ounces daily is recommended. It should also be noted that these illnesses can be much more severe in immunocompromised patients.

This would include anyone receiving chemotherapy, chronic steroids, immunosuppressive regimens, pregnant, HIV positive, the elderly and newborns. For this reason they should seek medical care as promptly as possible. One of the most important things to remember, frequent hand washing can prevent a multitude of diseases.