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Protect Your Family from Food Poisoning

woman checking expiration date on food

The Basics

Food poisoning (foodborne illness) is when you get sick from eating or drinking something that has harmful germs (like bacteria, viruses, or parasites) in it. Two common causes of food poisoning are E. coli and Salmonella.

Good habits like these can help protect your family from food poisoning:

  • Buy food from stores that look and smell clean.
  • Don’t buy food past “sell by,” “use by,” or other expiration dates.
  • Wash your hands often with warm water and soap – especially before and after touching food.
  • Make sure food is cooked to a safe temperature.
  • Keep raw meat and seafood away from cooked and ready-to-eat food.
  • Keep cold foods cold. Keep hot foods hot.

What causes food poisoning?
You can get food poisoning from eating bad (contaminated) food. Bacteria are the most common cause of food poisoning. Bacteria can get into food in several ways.

  • Foods may have some bacteria on them when you buy them.
  • Raw meat, poultry (like chicken and turkey), fish, vegetables, and fruit may pick up bacteria where they are grown or packaged.
  • Foods can also pick up bacteria at the store or in the kitchen. This usually happens when food that needs to be kept cold is left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours.

What’s the difference between food poisoning and a food allergy?
Food poisoning is caused by something in the food or drink that doesn’t belong there – like bacteria or a parasite. Anyone can get food poisoning.

A food allergy is caused by the food itself. People with a food allergy will have a bad reaction to a specific food, like milk or peanuts, every time they eat it.

How do I know if I have food poisoning?
Some signs of food poisoning include:

  • Stomach cramps
  • Vomiting (throwing up)
  • Diarrhea (frequent, watery poop)
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Body aches

Signs of food poisoning can start hours or even days after eating bad food. Usually the effects only last for a day or two, but they can last up to 10 days.

The treatment for most cases of food poisoning is to drink lots of fluids, like water. For more serious illness, you may need treatment at a hospital.

When do I need to call the doctor?
Call a doctor right away if you:

  • Are throwing up many times a day for more than 2 days
  • Have blood in your vomit or stools (poop)
  • Have a fever higher than 101.5 °F (degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Aren’t able to drink any liquids for 24 hours
  • Are throwing up all liquids you try to drink for 24 hours
  • Have extreme pain or cramping in your stomach
  • Are feeling very weak, dizzy, or lightheaded

Who needs to be concerned about food poisoning?
Anyone can get sick from eating bad food. But food poisoning is a serious health risk for pregnant women, children, older adults, and people with certain health conditions (like AIDS, diabetes, and cancer).

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Take Action!

Cooking meals at home is a great way to stay healthy and save money. Follow these simple steps to keep your family safe from food poisoning.

Shop smart when you buy food.
Shop at stores that look and smell clean. A dirty store or a bad smell can be a sign that food hasn’t been stored safely.

Follow these other safety tips when you choose food at the store:

  • Check the expiration (“use by” or “sell by”) dates on everything you buy.
  • Don’t buy cans that are leaking, bulging, or badly dented.
  • Don’t buy bottles or jars with “popped” lids or broken seals.
  • Buy eggs that have been kept in the store’s refrigerated section. Make sure they are free of cracks and liquid.
  • Put meat, poultry (like chicken and turkey), fish, and eggs in plastic bags, or separate them from other food in your cart or basket. This will keep them from leaking onto your other food.
  • Pick out frozen foods last so they are less likely to thaw before you get them home.
  • Make sure frozen food packages aren’t open or crushed. Avoid packages with frost or ice crystals – these are signs that the food has become warm and then refrozen.

Plan ahead to get food home safely.
Cold foods need to be put into a refrigerator or freezer as soon as possible. Follow these tips:

  • Cold food needs to be refrigerated within 2 hours. If it’s a hot day – over 90 °F (degrees Fahrenheit) – it needs to be refrigerated within 1 hour.
  • If you have other errands to do, save food shopping for last.
  • If you live far from the store, pack a cooler with ice for your cold items.
  • If you are driving and have air conditioning in your car, use it to help keep food cool.
  • Put cold foods in the refrigerator or freezer as soon as you get home.

Protect yourself from food poisoning at home.
After you get the food home, follow these tips for a healthy kitchen.

Keep your hands and kitchen clean.
Wash your hands with warm water and soap often, especially:

  • Before and after handling food
  • After using the bathroom
  • After changing a diaper
  • After touching pets

Make sure to wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils (like knives and spoons), and counters with hot soapy water after preparing each food item.

Separate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from ready-to-eat foods.
Use one cutting board for raw meat, poultry, and seafood and another one for fresh vegetables and fruits.

Place cooked food on a clean plate. Don’t use a plate that had raw or uncooked food on it, especially raw meat, poultry, or seafood.

Make sure food is safely cooked.
You can’t tell if meat, poultry, and eggs are cooked just by looking at them.

The only way to be sure food is cooked safely is to use a food thermometer. A food thermometer will check the temperature inside the food to make sure the food is safe to eat.

Keep cold foods cold.
Refrigerate or freeze all food that can go bad if it’s left at room temperature (like meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and open jars of mayonnaise).

Food needs to be refrigerated at 40 °F (degrees Fahrenheit) or cooler. Food can go bad quickly if you leave it at a temperature between 40 °F and 140 °F for more than 2 hours.

  • Check the settings on your refrigerator and freezer. Set the temperatures to:
    • 40 °F or below for the refrigerator
    • 0 °F or below for the freezer
  • Keep thermometers in the refrigerator and freezer to make sure they are staying at the correct temperatures.
  • Throw away food left at room temperature for more than 2 hours. If it’s a hot day (over 90 °F), throw away food left out for more than 1 hour.

Use foods that need to be kept in the refrigerator (dairy, meat, poultry, seafood, fruits, and vegetables) as soon as possible. Print this chart of how long food is safe and put it on your refrigerator.

Stay safe from food poisoning when you eat out.
These tips can help you enjoy healthy, safe meals away from home:

  • See if a restaurant looks clean before you even sit down. If the restaurant doesn’t look and smell clean, eat somewhere else.
  • Order your food fully cooked (well-done), especially meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. Cooking kills germs.
  • Hot food needs to be served hot, and cold food needs to be served cold. Send back your dish if it’s the wrong temperature.

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Content last updated on: September 27, 2012

National Health Information Center

P.O. Box 1133, Washington, DC 20013-1133