How to Prevent Foodborne Illness When You’re at High Risk

How to Prevent Foodborne Illness When You're at High Risk

Children, seniors, pregnant women and people with weak immune systems or certain diseases are at a high risk for foodborne illness. Here are foods you should steer clear of.

About 48 million people in the U.S. are diagnosed with food poisoning each year. But the number of people who get sick is likely much higher than that. Most people don’t see their doctors when they have signs of food borne illnesses. Scientists estimate that for every one person who gets sick with Salmonella (a common food borne bacteria) and sees a doctor, there are 38 other people who don’t seek medical treatment.

There’s no question about it: food poisoning strikes a lot of people. Luckily for most of them, all a bout of illness entails is few days of stomach cramps, diarrhea or vomiting. But for certain groups, food borne illness can be dangerous and even deadly.

Groups at higher risk

Anyone can come down with food poisoning. But some people have a higher risk. Including:

  • Older adults
  • Young children
  • Pregnant women
  • People with liver disease
  • People with weakened immune systems from cancer, diabetes or AIDS, for example.

These people are most at risk for serious infections that could lead to hospitalization or death.

If you’re in a high-risk group and have symptoms of food poisoning, call your doctor at once. The signs of food borne illness usually come on within 12 to 72 hours of eating contaminated food:

  • Diarrhea
  • Bloody stools
  • Stomach cramps or pains
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever

Symptoms of dehydration (decrease in urination, dry mouth or throat, or dizziness when standing up) may follow.

Foods to avoid

People at high risk for food poisoning should avoid these foods:

  • Raw fish (like sushi), and shellfish (like oysters, clams and mussels)
  • Soft cheeses, such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined and Mexican-style cheeses such as “queso fresco”
  • Raw or undercooked eggs or foods made with undercooked eggs, such as fresh made Caesar salad dressings or raw cookie dough
  • Alfalfa, clover and radish sprouts
  • Unpasteurized fruit and vegetable juices
  • Hot dogs, deli-style lunch meats, and fermented and dry sausage – unless they are reheated to be steaming hot

Pregnant women also need to steer clear of swordfish, tile fish, king mackerel and shark. These fish contain high levels of mercury that can be harmful for unborn babies.

All people should avoid:

  • Raw (un pasteurized) milk and products made with raw milk, like cheese or yogurt.
  • Raw or undercooked meat and poultry.

Food safety for all

Everyone – especially those at high risk for food poisoning – should follow the four rules of food safety to reduce the risk of getting sick:

  1. Clean:
    • Wash your hands with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds before preparing or eating food.
    • Rinse fruits and vegetables under running water before eating them.
    • Clean all surfaces before and after preparing foods on them.
  2. Separate:
    • Keep uncooked foods, such as raw meat, separate from ready-to-eat foods, like cheese.
    • Don’t let utensils, plates and cutting boards that once held uncooked meats come in contact with cooked foods (unless they have been washed well first).
  3. Cook: foods to a safe internal temperature. You cannot tell if a food is cooked just by looking at its color so always use a food thermometer. Cook:
    • Ground beef to 160 degrees F
    • Beef, veal and lamb to 145 degrees F for medium-rare and 160 degrees F for medium
    • Pork to 145 degrees F
    • Ground poultry to 165 degrees F
    • Whole poultry to 180 degree F
    • Chicken breast to 170 degrees F
    • Leftovers and hot dogs to at least 165 degrees F
    • Eggs until the yolk is firm
    • Egg casseroles, custards and sauces made with eggs to 160 degrees F
  4. Chill:
    • Refrigerate leftovers within two hours after serving (one hour when the temperature where the food is being served is above 90 degrees F). The “danger zone” is between 40 and 140 degrees F. This is when bacteria multiply, so keep foods out of this temperature range.
    • Store perishable leftovers in shallow containers so they cool in the refrigerator quickly.
    • Thaw foods in the refrigerator, under cold running water or in the microwave. Never defrost foods on the counter.
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