During the summer, emergency departments across the nation see an uptick in what people call “food poisoning.” This is a term used for a wide variety of illnesses caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites or toxins in food. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that one in six Americans suffers a bout of such an illness each year, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.

So why are they more common in the summer? With so many barbecues, picnics, and packed lunches for the beach, this season poses many food-safety pitfalls. Potato salad left out too long on a hot day, undercooked meat, contaminated shellfish, and insufficiently washed vegetables all could ruin your day, or a few days of your vacation.

While anyone can get ill from foodborne illnesses, some are more at risk. Those include:

  • very young children
  • seniors
  • pregnant women
  • those with weakened immune systems

Food poisoning symptoms can come on as quickly as an hour after consuming a food tainted with staphylococcus, or as long as several weeks in the case of hepatitis A.

Common causes include:

  • Salmonella. This is transmitted through eggs, poultry, meat, unpasteurized milk or juice, cheese, raw fruits, and vegetables.
  • Rotavirus. A virus that is introduced through raw produce, contaminated drinking water, and tainted shellfish, among others.
  • E. coli. This form of bacteria was recently in the news because of contaminated romaine lettuce. It is particularly known for causing illness due to undercooked ground beef.
  • Listeria. This is commonly found in hot dogs, deli meats, unpasteurized milk, and cheese made from that milk. It is particularly dangerous to expectant mothers.
  • Vibrio and Hepatitis. These are viruses that lurk in raw or undercooked seafood, such as shellfish.

The symptoms of food poisoning

The symptoms of foodborne illness — vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, sometimes a fever — can most often be managed at home. Unpleasant as it is, it’s best to let the diarrhea run its course rather than use a medicine like Imodium, because diarrhea is the body’s mechanism for ridding itself of the toxin. Try to drink water or Gatorade to avoid dehydration.

But if you’re unable even to keep fluids down, it’s time to seek medical help. Treatment mostly consists of rehydrating the patient by pumping in fluids and electrolytes, and sometimes administering anti-nausea medications.

If you find your symptoms lingering for as long as a week, your physician will likely do tests to determine the cause to help guide further treatment. Antibiotics are not automatically prescribed, since they tend to cause diarrhea themselves.

How to prevent food poisoning

Some steps you can take to avoid foodborne illness:

  • Use a food thermometer to make sure meat and poultry are cooked thoroughly to their safe minimum internal temperatures — 160 degrees for burgers, 165 for poultry. I purchased an inexpensive digital thermometer that folds like a pocketknife so that I can check what I’m cooking on the grill.
  • Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands.
  • Never let food sit at room temperature for more than two hours; if it is 90 degrees or higher, limit it to an hour or less.
  • Be careful preparing food around your kitchen sink, which has been found to have more germs than your toilet.
  • If you have any doubts about whether a food is still wholesome, don’t taste it or smell it to determine if it’s gone bad. Be safe and throw it away.

You can find lots more general advice at www.foodsafety.gov as well as tips specific to summer

If you use good food-handling techniques and practice proper hygiene, you can help keep yourself, your family, and your friends healthy and fit to enjoy the pleasures of summer.

Jeffrey Gaines, MD, FACEP

Jeffrey Gaines, MD, FACEP, is an emergency medicine physician, the Vice-President, Medical Affairs, and Chief Medical Officer for Newport Hospital