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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million cases of food-borne illness occur each year in the United States. Summer is the time when the likelihood of food poisoning increases. More people are picnicking, barbecuing and enjoying the warm weather. But the heat isn't good for some foods, especially salads and meats. Best advice from Dr. Carolyn O'Connor: Cool it down.

What causes food poisoning?

Food poisoning is caused by bacteria or toxins in contaminated food. It occurs most commonly when dairy products are left unrefrigerated too long, meats are undercooked or food preparation techniques are not clean.

Which type of bacteria causes the most concern?

The most common causes of food poisoning are staph, campylobacter and E. coli, which generally cause illness that will resolve on its own. However, there is a type of E. coli that can cause a blood and kidney disorder called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can be very serious.

Salmonella infections can also cause more dangerous infections if they move into the bloodstream. Illnesses caused by toxins in fish or mushrooms or by botulism are, fortunately, rare but can be deadly because they can affect the nervous system.

What are the symptoms that require a doctor's visit?

The nausea, vomiting and diarrhea of food poisoning usually resolve within two to three days. You should see a doctor if you have persistent diarrhea and are not able to keep fluids down due to vomiting to be sure you are not becoming dehydrated.

You should also be evaluated if you notice blood in the stool, high fever or you are not getting better in two to three days. If you suspect fish, mushroom or botulism poisoning (from improperly canned food), you should not wait -- you need to be evaluated right away.

Who is at greatest risk from food poisoning?

Young children, especially infants; elderly people; people with weak immune systems, diabetes or kidney problems; and pregnant women are all at increased risk of complications from food poisoning.

Is there anything I can do to prevent food poisoning?

Yes. Most important, wash your hands and your utensils thoroughly and often when preparing food. If you are hosting a picnic or bringing food to a picnic, keep hot food hot and cold food in the refrigerator or cooler until it's served. The [Food and Drug Administration] recommends leaving perishable food out no longer than two hours, and for no more than one hour if temperatures are above 90 degrees. Also:

Be sure to thoroughly cook meat and never use containers or cutting boards that held raw meat without cleaning them.

Marinate foods in the refrigerator, not on the counter or outdoors.

Consider packing beverages in one cooler and perishable foods in another.

Refrigerate leftovers as soon as your meal is finished and do not eat outdated foods.

When traveling it is best to eat only hot, freshly cooked food.

Michelle Deal-Zimmerman

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