Food recalls and restaurant closures are constant reminders of the dangers of foodborne illness. Each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million people get sick from foodborne illness. While most are able to recover on their own, 128,000 people are hospitalized with serious foodborne illnesses each year – and children face higher risk of getting sick.
"Children under the age of 5 have a higher risk of contracting foodborne illnesses because their immune systems are still developing," explains Jeffrey Kahn, M.D., Director of Infectious Disease at Children's Health℠ and Professor at UT Southwestern. "All foodborne illnesses are preventable and protecting your family from the most common foodborne illnesses requires just a few simple food safety precautions."
What is the most common cause of foodborne illness?
Foodborne illness is caused when germs – such as bacteria, viruses, parasites or their toxins – contaminate food. Consuming contaminated food transfers these germs to the digestive tract, causing gastric distress.
Germs that cause illness can be found in a variety of foods, including undercooked meat and poultry, eggs, improperly canned foods and raw fruits and vegetables. More than 250 kinds of foodborne illnesses exist, but the five most commonly contracted are:
- Clostridium perfringens
Botulism, E. Coli, Listeria and Vibrio represent some of the most dangerous foodborne illnesses. While these germs are less common than those mentioned previously, the illnesses they cause tend to be more severe, leading to more hospitalizations.
In addition, over the past few years Texas has reported multiple outbreaks of cyclosporiasis, an intestinal illness caused by the parasite Cyclospora. Infections are commonly linked to contaminated produce and cause watery diarrhea. To help prevent cyclosporiasis, thoroughly wash all fresh fruits and vegetables. Cooking foods will also kill the parasite.
Another intestinal parasite that has recently made the news is Cryptosporidium, which causes cryptosporidiosis (often called crypto). Its symptoms are similar to cyclosporiasis, and the illnesses are often confused.
What are the symptoms of a foodborne illness?
While specific symptoms may vary in children, foodborne illnesses are usually gastrointestinal in nature, most commonly causing upset stomach, vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms can develop within just a few hours or take several days. In most cases, your child can recover at home within a few days. However, be sure to seek treatment if your child sustains a high fever, has blood in the stool or is severely dehydrated (through excessive vomiting or diarrhea).
How can we prevent foodborne illnesses?
The easiest way to keep your family safe from foodborne illness is to follow food safety guidelines when preparing food. The CDC recommends a four-step "clean, separate, cook and chill" process:
- Ensure all surfaces, your food and your hands are clean, and do not cook if you are sick. Examine your food thoroughly. For canned goods, immediately throw away any package that appears swollen, loose or cracked. Be on the lookout for milky liquid surrounding vegetables.
- Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from foods that will be eaten raw, such as fruits and vegetables. Use different utensils and surfaces to handle each.
- Cook any meat, poultry, seafood or eggs to an appropriate temperature to kill any bacteria. Measure the temperature with a food thermometer.
- Put any uneaten, perishable food in the refrigerator promptly, and avoid keeping leftovers for too long.
"As a general rule, parents should never eat or feed their child raw meat," says Dr. Kahn. "I also recommend avoiding unpasteurized milk or products made from unpasteurized milk." Obey sell-by and best-by dates on your food purchases. Finally, do not give a child under the age of 1 raw honey, which can be a source of botulism toxin.
What to do if there is a food recall
If a food item you purchased is recalled, do not eat or open it. The recall notice will provide instructions for each specific product and will tell you what to do with your food, which generally includes throwing it away or returning it to the store. To stay on top of food recalls, keep your food receipts to remember when and where you purchased food. Also, keep your food labels until all of your leftovers are gone. Visit FoodSafety.gov to review a list of recalled food items.
If you or your child becomes sick from contaminated food, contact your state health department and report the illness. This action helps to identify outbreaks. Work with your health care provider to determine if testing would also help to identify the illness and bring awareness to a potential outbreak. Finally, if you are able, keep a food diary of what you and your child ate, when and where. This information is useful to identify the cause of your illness and will also assist investigators in locating the source of an outbreak.
Stay current on the health insights that make a difference to your children. Sign up for the Children's Health newsletter and have more tips sent directly to your inbox.