Information for the Public
Cook to the right temperature
Many people think they can tell when food is “done” by checking its color and texture, there’s no way to be sure it’s safe without using a food thermometer.
Wash hands and surfaces often
Illness-causing bacteria can survive in many places around your kitchen, including your hands, utensils, cutting boards, and countertops.
Illness-causing bacteria can grow in many foods within two hours unless you refrigerate them. (During the summer heat, cut that time down to one hour.)
Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs can spread illness-causing bacteria to ready-to-eat foods—unless you keep them separate.
How do you get food poisoning?
You can get food poisoning after swallowing food that has been contaminated with a variety of germs (bacteria, viruses, parasites) or toxic substances (molds, contaminants). After you eat the contaminated food 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 include upset stomach, abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and dehydration. Symptoms may range from mild to severe and may differ depending on the germ that is making you sick. Severe cases of food poisoning can cause long-term health problems or death.
What germs cause food poisoning?
The most common germs that cause food poisoning are norovirus, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, and Campylobacter. After you eat food contaminated with these germs they pass through the stomach into the intestine, attach to the cells lining the walls of the intestine and begin to multiply. Some germs stay in the intestine, some produce a toxin that is absorbed into the bloodstream, and some can directly invade the deeper body tissues. The symptoms you experience depend on the germ that you swallowed.
How can you help protect your family from food poisoning?
- Wash your hands and surfaces often. Germs can survive in many places around your kitchen, including your hands, utensils, and cutting boards.
- Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water and always follow these four simple steps for food safety.
- Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs can spread germs to ready-to-eat foods—unless you keep them separate. It’s important to keep them separate, even after you’ve cleaned your hands and surfaces thoroughly.
- Cook to the right temperature. While many people think they can tell when food is "done" simply by checking its color and texture, 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 (allowing the meat to rest for 3 minutes before carving or consuming), 160°F for ground meats, and 165°F for all poultry.
- Keep your refrigerator below 40°F and refrigerate foods properly. Germs can grow in many foods within 2 hours unless you refrigerate them. (During the summer heat, cut that time down to 1 hour.)
For more information on preventing food poisoning, check your steps at FoodSafety.gov.
Who is more likely to get food poisoning?
Certain groups of people have a higher risk for food poisoning. Children younger than 5, pregnant women, adults over 65, and people with weak immune systems are more likely to get sick from contaminated food, and if they do get sick the effects may be more serious.
People in these groups should be particularly careful not to consume undercooked animal products. They should avoid soft French-style cheeses, pates, uncooked hot dogs and sliced deli meats, which have been sources of Listeria infections. People at high risk should also avoid alfalfa sprouts and unpasteurized juices.
What should you do if you think you have food poisoning?
See your doctor if you have:
- High fever (temperature over 101.5 F, measured orally)
- Blood in the stools
- Prolonged vomiting that prevents keeping liquids down (which can lead to dehydration)
- Signs of dehydration, including a decrease in urination, a dry mouth and throat, and feeling dizzy when standing up.
- Diarrheal illness that lasts more than 3 days
Do not be surprised if your doctor does not prescribe an antibiotic. Many diarrheal illnesses are caused by viruses and will improve in 2 or 3 days without antibiotic therapy. In fact, antibiotics have no effect on viruses, and using an antibiotic to treat a viral infection could cause more harm than good.
It is often not necessary to take an antibiotic even in the case of a mild bacterial infection. Other treatments can help the symptoms, and careful handwashing can prevent the spread of infection to other people.
Overuse of antibiotics is the principal reason many bacteria are becoming resistant. Resistant bacteria are no longer killed by the antibiotic. This means that it is important to use antibiotics only when they are really needed. Partial treatment can also cause bacteria to become resistant. If an antibiotic is prescribed, it is important to take all of the medication as prescribed, and not stop early just because the symptoms seem to be improving.
- Page last reviewed: October 23, 2015
- Page last updated: September 1, 2016
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