Food Safety and How to Prevent Food Poisoning

Parents often suspect food poisoning every time their kids get diarrhea and vomiting.

Family preparing food in the kitchen
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Fortunately, food poisoning doesn't occur that frequently, as most cases of diarrhea and vomiting in kids are caused by simple viral infections that kids get in daycare or school.

Still, food poisoning is common, as the CDC estimates that there are about 76 million cases of food poisoning in the United States each year. Although most of these cases are mild, about 325,000 people with food poisoning are hospitalized and 5,000 die each year.

Since young children are among the groups most at risk of getting serious and even life-threatening cases of food poisoning, it is important for parents to learn how to recognize and prevent them from occurring.

Food Poisoning Symptoms

Food poisoning symptoms can vary depending on what is triggering them, but they usually include vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal cramps.

Other symptoms, like when someone has an E. coli O157 infection, can include bloody diarrhea, and complications such as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) or fever when they have salmonellosis (a Salmonella infection).

Toxins, such as with botulism, can cause fatal neurotoxic symptoms, including double vision, and trouble swallowing, talking, and breathing.

Depending on the cause, symptoms of food poisoning may occur a few hours or a few days after eating contaminated food.

Diagnosing Food Poisoning

Food poisoning is often hard to diagnose because it can be caused by so many different things, including viruses, bacteria, parasites, and toxins, such as:

  • Campylobacter
  • Salmonella
  • E. coli O157
  • Norwalk-like viruses
  • Shigella
  • Hepatitis A
  • Giardia lamblia
  • Cryptosporidia
  • Clostridium botulinum, which produces the botulinum toxin that causes botulism
  • Listeria
  • Staphylococcus aureus, which produces a staphylococcal enterotoxin
  • Vibrio vulnificus

In addition to looking for a pattern of symptoms, such as everyone in the family got sick right a few hours after eating at the same restaurant, stool cultures can sometimes help identify the parasite or bacteria that is causing the symptoms of food poisoning. Stool tests can also sometimes identify bacterial toxins and viruses.

Not surprisingly, many people have food poisoning and never know it.

Food Poisoning Treatments

Like vomiting and diarrhea from a stomach virus, food poisoning treatments are usually aimed at preventing dehydration.

Antibiotics are usually not necessary or helpful for most cases of food poisoning, although for some severe infections, like shigellosis (a Shigella infection), and food poisoning caused by parasites, treatment is necessary. See your pediatrician if you think that your child has food poisoning, especially if he has bloody diarrhea, high fever, signs of dehydration, or if he isn't quickly getting better on his own.

Preventing Food Poisoning

Since food poisoning is often hard to recognize and few treatments are available, it is best to try and prevent food poisoning in the first place.

These food safety tips can help you keep your kids healthy and their food safe:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before preparing and serving your child's food.
  • Cook foods thoroughly before you feed them to your children, especially meat, poultry, and eggs.
  • Separate foods and utensils when you are preparing, serving, and storing your child's meals, so they don't become cross-contaminated with germs from each other, and clean utensils and surfaces with hot water and soap.
  • Chill leftover food as soon as possible and within a few hours of cooking or serving, being sure to set your refrigerator to no higher than 40 degrees F and your freezer to 0 F or below.
  • Clean all fruits and vegetables before serving them to your child.
  • Avoid unpasteurized milk (raw milk) and juices.
  • Read about FDA recalls and alerts to find about contaminated food you may have in your home.
  • Throw out foods that you think are contaminated or are past their expiration date, even if they aren't moldy and don't have an odor since you can't always tell when a food is contaminated.

What You Need To Know

  • Almost any food can become contaminated and cause food poisoning, but certain foods are considered high risk, including unpasteurized milk and other dairy products, undercooked meat and poultry, raw shellfish, and deli-prepared salads, such as egg salad, potato salad, and chicken salads.
  • Foods become contaminated and cause food poisoning in many ways, including when they are grown with contaminated water, improperly processed or canned, undercooked, cross-contaminated during preparation, or when someone who is sick prepares the food without properly washing their hands.
  • You can't usually tell if a food is "bad" or is going to make your child sick by its smell or color. Many contaminated foods look and smell normal.
  • Honey can be a source of the Clostridium botulinum spores that cause botulism, which is why you are not supposed to give honey to infants under 12 months of age.
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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  •  Krugman's Infectious Diseases of Children, 11th edition. Philadelphia, PA: 2004.