Four ways to protect yourself from food poisoning

It’s prime time for barbeques, picnics, and family reunions. Which means it’s also high time to be diligent about your food prep and consumption. Because microbes that cause food poisoning actually thrive in warm weather.

Today, I’ll tell you four simple steps to protect yourself against the harmful microbes that cause food poisoning.

But first, let’s back up and talk about some of the reasons why microbes cause problems in the first place…

Not all microbes are created equal

You may not realize it, but you host many helpful microbes—including probiotic bacteria—on your skin and in your respiratory and gastrointestinal (GI) system. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship and a great example of symbiosis. And these beneficial microbes don’t cause immune responses or infections in humans.

On the other hand…

Many types of microbes do harm humans. And if you consume them with food, they can cause “food poisoning” and infection. In fact, some of the most-common microbes that cause food poisoning are:

  • Campylobacter
  • perfringens
  • coli
  • Giardia lamblia
  • Hepatitis A
  • Listeria
  • Norovirus
  • Salmonella
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Vibrio vulnificus

These microbes thrive in certain foods, which act as perfect “culture mediums” (where different kinds of microorganisms grow). Plus, the warmer the temperature, the faster microbes replicate.

Some common food sources for these microbes include:

  • Conventionally raised meat and poultry that has become contaminated by animal feces.
  • Undercooked meat and poultry.
  • Raw produce that hasn’t been properly washed, peeled, and prepared (especially alfalfa sprouts).
  • Improperly selected and cooked fish and seafood. (Note: Many, but not all, toxins in seafood are inactivated by heating.)
  • Dairy, especially raw or undercooked creams.
  • Unpasteurized apple cider.
  • Contaminated water.

When you eat or drink these contaminated foods, the microbes suddenly take up residence inside your GI tract. Then, when your immune system recognizes them as hostile, your body reacts with a range of symptoms, like abdominal cramping, diarrhea, fever, nausea, stiff, sore muscles and joints, and vomiting.

Typically, your GI system is the first area affected, as your body tries to expel the infection. So the symptoms usually begin shortly after eating the contaminated food. But sometimes symptoms can be delayed, showing up over days or even weeks.

In most cases, though, symptoms should taper off on their own within a few hours or over a few days.

Signs that you should seek medical help include:

  • Blood in the stool
  • Diarrhea for more than five days
  • Persistent high fever
  • Unable to keep fluids down for more than 12 hours
  • Vomiting for more than 12 hours

A prolonged bout of food poisoning may also lead to dehydration, so it’s important to stay hydrated if you can. Common signs of dehydration (for which you may also need to seek medical help) include:

  • Increased thirst
  • Dry mouth
  • Less frequent urination
  • Dark urine
  • Headache
  • Light headedness
  • Fatigue

Persistent symptoms can lead to more serious—even fatal—problems. Especially if you’re older or suffering from chronic disease. In fact, older people are more likely to remain ill longer and experience symptoms that require hospitalization for monitoring and treatment. In these cases, the poisoning is often caused by a bacterial infection, which may require help from the right short-term antibiotic—if absolutely necessary.

Why age puts you at greater risk for food poisoning

As you get older, your immune system may not respond as strongly to infectious organisms. Plus, chronic diseases become more common with aging and can weaken your immune response to dangerous microbes.

In addition, your GI system doesn’t neutralize and expel dangerous microbes as fast as it used to. And your liver and kidneys don’t eliminate microbial toxins as quickly either.

Our senses tend to get weaker with aging as well. Meaning you may fail to detect and reject contaminated food.

And lastly, older people may not be as careful and rigorous in preparing foods. In fact, studies reported in nursing literature have found that people older than 60 are more likely to consume food that has expired or has not been properly cooked or refrigerated.

The good news is, there are four simple tips that can help you avoid food poisoning, no matter what your age:

1.) Keep foods chilled

Always keep frozen foods in the freezer and perishable foods in the refrigerator until ready to eat.

2.) Be careful with thawing

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends thawing food in the microwave. But I recommend using a microwave as little as possible—or not at all.

Instead, transfer frozen foods to the refrigerator for a few hours to thaw slowly, naturally, and safely. Or, if you’re in a pinch for time, place frozen foods in warm water and rinse carefully.

3.) Wash and separate
As I always explain, most microbes can’t stand up to good, old-fashioned soap and water. So, make sure to keep your hands, countertops, cutting boards, and utensils clean. This step prevents microbes from spreading. Also, always rinse fresh fruit and vegetables under cold, running water.

In addition, make sure to separate raw eggs, meat, poultry, and seafood—and use separate cutting boards, plates, and utensils—until they are all cooked thoroughly.

4.) Cook properly

Heat kills microbes in food, and you need to make sure the internal temperature of the food reaches a safe temperature. Refer to the chart below from the CDC.

(Photo credit:

By following these simple steps, you can enjoy all your favorite summertime dishes without having to worry about the risk of food poisoning. Happy eating!

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“Food Poisoning: Are Older Adults At Greater Risk?” Live Science, 2/12/14. (