Food Poisoning Signs and Prevention

Food poisoning, a food borne illness, is a common problem that occurs most frequently during the holidays and the summer. It is estimated that between 20 and 80 million cases of foodborne diarrhea disease occur each year in the United States, costing between $5 billion and $17 billion in medical care and lost productivity. Most of these cases are caused by food contamination, including improper cooking and storage of foods, and poor hygiene (not washing hands).

Bacteria is the most common food poisoning cause. More than 90 percent of the cases of food poisoning each year are caused by:

  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Salmonella
  • Clostridium perfringens
  • Campylobacter
  • Listeria monocytogenes
  • Vibrio parahaemolyticus
  • Bacillus cereus
  • Entero-pathogenic Escherichia coli
  • Shigella

Normally, a large number of food-poisoning bacteria must be present to cause illness.

How Long Does Food Poisoning Last?

In most cases, symptoms of food poisoning can last 12 to 48 hours, but this can vary depending on the bacteria, the degree of exposure to the contaminant, and the individual’s age and health status.
Many cases of gastrointestinal or “food poisoning” symptoms (nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea) are due to viral infections and are not true cases of food poisoning. True food poisoning diagnosis is difficult because many organisms are found in different kinds of food and all have different incubation periods.

How to Prevent Food Poisoning

  • Wash your hands! Wash them before, during, and after food preparation. Use soap and warm water and wash for 20 seconds. Wash after touching raw meat, fish, or poultry. Wash your hands after every trip to the bathroom. Washing is the most important thing you can do to prevent food poisoning.
  • Use hot, soapy water to wash cutting boards, utensils, and anything else that was used to prepare food. Use a diluted bleach solution to clean cutting boards and countertops after food preparation. 
  • Do not use a sponge or dishcloth to clean surfaces that have touched raw meat, fish, or poultry. Use soap, water, and a disposable paper towel.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables well before eating.
  • Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. If food is left at room temperature for two hours or longer, bacteria can multiply and cause food poisoning.
  • Refrigerate all leftovers soon after meals. (Hot food does not have to be cooled before placing it in the refrigerator.)
  • Hot food does not have to be cooled before placing it in the refrigerator.
  • After shopping, refrigerate frozen food as soon as possible. If thawed, use immediately. Do not refreeze.
  • Defrost meats and poultry in the refrigerator or the microwave.
  • When spending time outdoors, don't drink stream water. No matter how clear the water looks, it can still contain dangerous bacteria and other organisms.
  • Don't buy or use food from dented, bulging, or rusted cans.
  • Contaminated food may or may not smell, taste, or look bad. Don't taste suspicious foods and don't ask anyone else to taste it either.

How to Treat Food Poisoning

Although most individuals improve without food poisoning treatment, staying hydrated is the most important aspect of recovery. Depending on the case, treatment may include antibiotics, probiotics, or other medication prescribed by your doctor.

Important phone numbers:

USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline: 1-800-535-4555

If you have questions, call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

Important links:

Centers For Disease Control

Iowa Department of Public Health