How to Handle Food Poisoning

Contaminated food can make kids -- and adults -- very sick within hours. Here's what to do if someone in your family gets food poisoning.

Causes and Treatments

Foodborne illness, which affects more than 75 million people a year, is caused by toxins, parasites, viruses, and especially bacteria -- including salmonella, E. coli, and staphylococcus. Children, whose immune systems are not fully developed, are at high risk for serious complications, as are pregnant women and the elderly. But some simple precautions can help keep your family safe.

Mommy, My Tummy Hurts

Food poisoning starts anywhere from an hour to three days after eating tainted or undercooked food. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, and fever. Here are some red flags to watch for.

    A few hours after a family picnic,
    your 9-year-old son starts vomiting.

    What It Could Be
    Staphylococcus aureus

    What To Do
    Have your child rest and drink plenty of water.
    You can also give him a hydrating solution such
    as Pedialyte. But if he develops a fever above
    101.5°F or has difficulty keeping water down,
    you should call the pediatrician.

    Your 6-month-old baby shows signs of abdominal
    pain or has diarrhea.

    What It Could Be

    What To Do
    Give your baby plenty of water, and call your
    pediatrician. Because food poisoning can be more
    dangerous in babies than in older children, take
    her to the doctor if she has more than two episodes
    of diarrhea or vomiting, especially if she shows
    signs of dehydration (dry mouth, rapid heartbeat,
    or reduced urination).

    The day after eating a fast-food
    hamburger, your 6-year-old daughter develops
    severe, bloody diarrhea.

    What It Could Be
    E. coli O157:H7, shigella, or salmonella

    What To Do
    Take your child to the pediatrician as soon
    as possible; the doctor can take a stool sample
    to see what's making her sick. Bloody diarrhea
    is a sign of serious infection. Don't give your
    child an antidiarrheal medication, which can
    make her sicker.

    Your 11-month-old baby is listless
    and seems weak.

    What It Could Be

    What To Do
    Botulism is rare, but it has a high fatality
    rate if not treated immediately and properly.
    Get your child medical attention right away,
    especially if he has eaten honey, which is often
    the culprit in babies. If left untreated, botulism
    can lead to paralysis or respiratory failure.

      Top Triggers and Food Prep Tips

      Top Food Triggers

      Common food-poisoning culprits include the following:

      • Raw or undercooked eggs
      • Salads mixed with homemade mayonnaise
      • Raw fruits, vegetables, meat, or poultry
      • Shrimp, oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops
      • Fresh cider and other unpasteurized fruit juices
      • Alfalfa and other kinds of sprouts
      • Unpasteurized milk and cheeses
      • Home-canned foods
      • Deli meats and hot dogs

        Kitchen Tips

        • Make sure you and your kids wash your hands with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds before and after preparing food.
        • Never put food on a surface where raw meat or eggs have been.
        • Thaw meat, poultry, or fish on the bottom shelf of the fridge so contaminated juices won't drip onto other foods. Don't thaw foods on kitchen countertops -- warm temperatures encourage bacterial growth.
        • Rinse fruits and vegetables in warm, running tap water to remove visible dirt. Scrub with a brush if necessary.
        • Clean countertops with hot water and soap. Put cutting boards in the dishwasher.
        • Throw dishcloths in the laundry three times a week. Disinfect sponges in a bleach-and-water solution.

          Cook It Right

          Use a meat thermometer to make sure that meat and poultry are cooked to the correct internal temperature. Follow these steps to reduce the risk of illness.

          Cook to: 145°F, medium-rare; 160°F, medium; 170°F, well-done
          How it should look: Medium-rare or medium meat will be pink in the center. The outside of the meat should be dark, and juices should run clear.

          Ground Beef
          Cook to: 160°F
          How it should look: The center of the burger is no longer pink, and drippings will run clear.

          Cook to: 160°F, medium; 170°F,well-done
          How it should look: When the thickest part of the meat is jabbed with a fork, juices will be clear

          Cook to: 180°F, whole bird; 170°F, breasts; 180°F, dark meat
          How it should look: When meat is tested with a fork, drippings will run clear; meat will not be pink.

            Pregnancy Alert

            Listeriosis, a type of food poisoning that's 20 times more likely to affect pregnant women than other adults, can result in premature delivery, miscarriage, or stillbirth if left untreated. If you have flulike symptoms such as fever, vomiting, diarrhea, or muscle aches for more than 12 hours after eating, call your gynecologist. The bacteria that causes listeriosis is found in soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue cheese, and queso blanco; lunch meats; unpasteurized milk; and pates and other meat spreads. Avoid these foods if you're pregnant.

            Some fish may contain high levels of mercury, which can damage an unborn baby's nervous system. Avoid eating shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel. Freshwater fish such as salmon, pike, and trout could also be tainted, so check with your state or local health department.

            All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.