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Food poisoning in summer: how to prevent it

September 29, 2022 • read

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Food poisoning in summer: how to prevent it

If you’re like most Canadians, you take every opportunity to get outside once the warm weather arrives. This often means outdoor get-togethers, most of them over a meal. But, all those BBQs, camping trips, and picnics can be a golden opportunity for the bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses. Here’s why food poisoning is more common in the summer and what you can do to avoid it.

Why does food poisoning increase in summer?

Food poisoning is a huge problem, affecting four million Canadians every year. And many of these food-borne illnesses spike during the warmer months.

Summer gatherings are more likely to include an outdoor setting, making handwashing and utensil hygiene difficult. And, since contaminated surfaces and hands can spread food-borne illnesses, this can lead to food poisoning.

Beyond that, bacteria flourish in certain conditions. They love warmth and humidity and thrive in the so-called “danger zone” between 4°C and 60°C. That means the delicious summer weather you love is also good for food-borne bacteria.

Storing meat and other foods improperly — like in a not-so-cool cooler — makes it easier for bacteria to multiply. Not cooking food thoroughly further increases the likelihood of bacterial presence in what you eat. This combination of factors contributes to the uptick in summer food poisoning cases.

If you think you’ve come down with a case of food poisoning, Maple can help. Maple is an online virtual care platform that connects you to a Canadian-licensed doctor or specialist from your phone, tablet, or computer, so you can get answers to pressing food poisoning-related questions within minutes.

How long can food sit out before becoming dangerous?

Not long! Anything left out for longer than two hours at room temperature — around 21°C — should be thrown away. However, on hotter, more humid days, that window shrinks, as over 30°C bacteria can grow to dangerous levels in only an hour.

Keep in mind that while food may look and smell normal after the two-hour mark, you can’t see bacteria. The bottom line is that your health isn’t worth risking an infection over a couple of leftover hotdogs, and food safety should always be the priority. If in doubt, throw it out.

How long does food poisoning last?

When you’re in the grips of a bout of food poisoning, it can feel like it’ll last forever. The reality is, however, that most symptoms resolve within two or three days — although it may take longer than this to feel “normal” again. If you’re still sick after a week, you may want to speak with a healthcare provider.

Food poisoning can sometimes be difficult to diagnose, however, as symptom onset can vary considerably. In some cases, symptoms present within hours of contact with the pathogen. In others, they can take days or even weeks to crop up.

What are the symptoms of food poisoning?

The symptoms you’re most likely to experience with food poisoning are:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea — can be watery or bloody
  • Fever

Food poisoning symptoms can vary considerably depending on the microorganism infecting your food, however. These are some of the most common bacteria responsible for food poisoning and the symptoms they trigger.

Campylobacter

Raw and undercooked meats are its primary source, but campylobacter is also found in contaminated water making it a frequent cause of traveller’s diarrhea. Symptoms include:

  • Stomach pain and cramps
  • Fever
  • Diarrhea with or without blood

Clostridium botulinum

Clostridium botulinum is a bacteria that causes botulism, a potentially life-threatening type of food poisoning. If its name sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the bacteria that produces the toxin used in Botox. Improperly canned or fermented foods — usually homemade, not commercial — are often its source.

In addition to diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea, botulism symptoms can also include:

  • Drooping eyelids
  • Blurry or double vision
  • Facial paralysis and slurring of speech
  • Constipation

Escherichia coli (E. coli)

One of the most famous sources of food poisoning, E. coli can be fatal in a small percentage of cases. The most common sources of it are raw or undercooked meat, fruits and veggies, or contact with fecal matter of animals or people through contaminated food or water. Symptoms include:

  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea with or without blood
  • Vomiting

Listeria

Listeria is the reason pregnant women are cautioned against eating soft cheeses and deli meats. Most commonly found in these foods, it can also turn up on melons and seafood and can cause serious pregnancy complications. Listeria is also unusual as symptoms can occur up to two months after eating infected food.

Listeria poisoning often presents with the most common food poisoning symptoms. In severe cases when the bacteria spreads to the nervous system, however, symptoms may include:

  • Muscles aches
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Stiff neck
  • Loss of balance
  • Loss of consciousness and convulsions

Norovirus

If you’ve had norovirus before, you know how intense it is. Highly contagious norovirus is transmissible both through person-to-person contact and by touching infected surfaces. It’s also possible to ingest it via shellfish, fruits, and vegetables. Symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach cramps

Salmonella

Salmonella poisoning is usually attributable to eating undercooked chicken and meat, or to infected eggs, veggies, and fruit. But transfer through contact with pet reptiles and amphibians is another significant source. Symptoms of salmonella poisoning include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Stomach cramps
  • Vomiting
  • Sudden headache

Staphylococcus aureus (Staph)

Staph infections can transmit to food through unsafe food handling practices by an infected person. This is most likely to happen through poultry, meat products, and dairy, but can sometimes happen via prepared foods like sandwiches, baked goods, and salads. Symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea

Vibrio

One of the reasons you should only eat seafood from reputable sources, vibrio infects shellfish, especially oysters. Symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Vomiting
  • Watery diarrhea
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Headache

How is food poisoning treated?

The natural reaction to food poisoning is to want to put an end to your symptoms as quickly as possible. But diarrhea, vomiting, and the rest are your body’s way of expelling the bacteria that’s causing your symptoms. Taking anti-nausea or antidiarrheal medicine may seem like a good idea but it may actually prolong your discomfort.

Instead, avoid eating, but keep yourself hydrated by sucking on ice chips or taking small sips of liquid. Water and electrolyte-replenishing liquids are best as dehydration is a frequent complication of prolonged vomiting or diarrhea.

Most cases of food poisoning can be treated at home. Seek medical care, however, if your symptoms don’t resolve, or if they become severe. If extreme dehydration is an issue, oral rehydration fluids or intravenous rehydration is necessary. In some cases, you may also need an antibiotic prescription to treat the underlying bacterial cause of your food poisoning.

What should you eat and drink during and after food poisoning?

Anything you consume during and immediately after a bout of food poisoning should be to prevent dehydration. As a general rule, try to replace your fluid loss by consuming one cup of fluids for every large watery bowel movement. Take frequent sips of rehydration fluids like Pedialyte, or chew on ice. You’ll also want to avoid juices and sodas because of their high sugar and lack of electrolytes.

Consuming too much during your illness risks having it come right back up. For the first couple of days of recovery, eat bland, easily-tolerated foods. Choose foods lower in fat and sugar, and steer clear of anything spicy as it’ll be harder on your stomach. Once you’re over the worst of your symptoms though, try to stick to your normal diet as much as possible to help replace lost nutrition and feel better faster.

When it comes to liquids, focus on clear ones. This means water and herbal tea, but also broths and sodas — flat ginger ale is a perennial favorite. And, as much as it might pain you, avoid caffeine and alcohol until you’re fully recovered.

When should you go to the doctor?

Food poisoning is horrendous. Despite this, it’s often treatable at home. Certain circumstances, however, do necessitate medical intervention. If you’re vomiting so much you can’t keep liquids down, or if you have signs of dehydration like very dark urine or aren’t urinating, it’s time to see a doctor.

Likewise, if you’re experiencing any form of paralysis, rapid heartbeat, confusion, blurry vision, or bloody diarrhea it’s a medical emergency.

Finally, certain individuals are more vulnerable to the effects of food poisoning than others. If you’re pregnant, a senior citizen, or have a weakened immune system, or if your baby or child is affected, you should speak to a healthcare provider.

What can you do to prevent food poisoning in the summer?

Reduce your risk of food poisoning and make safe food handling the norm with the following safety tips:

  • Clean and disinfect all cutlery, plates, serving dishes, surfaces, and anything else food-related with hot, soapy water before, during, and after preparing your food. Using one pair of tongs to shepherd your meat from raw to cooked with only a rinse in between can lead to contaminated foods.
  • Like your other tools, wash your hands before, during, and after food prep with hot, soapy water
  • When it comes to foods, separate is best. Veggies and meats should be kept apart in sealed containers or packages and prepared on separate surfaces. If you must store them together — like in a cooler — keep any meat on the bottom to avoid getting its raw juices over other items.
  • Produce is often an afterthought when it comes to food poisoning, but it’s actually one of the top sources of food-borne illnesses. Make sure to wash all produce and fruits — including melon rinds — thoroughly.
  • Washing is great for produce, but not when it comes to meat and poultry. If you grew up in a house where washing your chicken was the norm, it’s time to give that practice a rest. Washing meat and poultry increases the risk of spreading contamination around.
  • Meat isn’t ready until it’s reached a certain internal temperature. This differs depending on the meat, ranging from 63°C for a steak cooked medium-rare to 82°C for a whole chicken. Use a meat thermometer to get the temperature just right.
  • Don’t let hot foods creep into the danger zone below 60°C by leaving them sitting around. Instead, eat foods immediately after cooking.
  • Keep your food refrigerated below 4°C and don’t let anything sit out for longer than two hours

How Maple can help

Food poisoning can strike at any time and take you down for the count. It can also leave you confused. Food poisoning symptoms can sometimes look like the flu, making your treatment options that much more unclear.

If you’re trying to navigate your food poisoning symptoms, Maple can help. Maple connects you with a Canadian-licensed doctor online within minutes. They can discuss your symptoms, and provide guidance regarding treatment. If necessary, they can also provide prescriptions for antibiotics or other medications, or referrals — like for a stool culture.

You don’t have to navigate your food poisoning alone. Reach out and start treating your symptoms today.

This blog was developed by our team and reviewed by a medical professional. 

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