Food poisoning risks increase with arrival of warmer temperatures

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

With warmer weather here and plenty of reasons to get the family outdoors, doctors often see an increase in the number of bacterial food poisonings.

Graduation parties, Memorial Day get-togethers and family picnics create the right setting for contracting and spreading bacteria that cause common intestinal infections. Warmer temperatures create an environment for bacteria growth. Plus at party-like settings with lots of people touching the same utensils and food, it's easy for bacteria to spread.

Contrary to popular belief, it's not bacteria that cause people to get sick. Doctors at Nationwide Children's Hospital explain that illness is actually caused by a toxin produced by the bacteria. And different strains of bacteria grow, spread and produce toxins in different ways. Regardless of the type of bacteria, a few simple changes to your picnic routine can go a long way in protecting your family.

The most common form of food-borne illnesses comes from bacteria called clostridium perfringens and it most often contaminates meat and poultry.

Party-goers are at risk when food is cooked, allowed to slowly get to room temperature, and then consumed or reheated. Items like fried chicken, lunch meat, and other meat-based picnic foods need to be kept warm or cold throughout the duration of the event. With this particular strain of bacteria, the toxins aren't produced until they're inside the body, so signs of illness usually appear six to 12 hours after consumption, but can appear as late as 24 hours later. Symptoms include watery diarrhea and abdominal cramping.

Another common strain of bacteria responsible for food-borne illnesses is staphylococcus, or more commonly called staph. Staph grows easily on protein-rich foods like ham, eggs and mayonnaise, which make picnic-friendly foods like potato and macaroni salads prime growing grounds. Once the food is contaminated, bacteria multiply rapidly and the toxin appears quickly. Staph is particularly dangerous because the food will still look and taste normal, so those infected don't realize it until symptoms start one to six hours later.

Symptoms include severe cramping, abdominal pain, repeated vomiting and occasionally fever and diarrhea. It's common to find staph on skin, so good hand hygiene is incredibly important in preventing its spread. Also, keep foods refrigerated whenever possible as the cool temperatures block toxin production.

"With food poisoning, the goal is the keep the patient comfortable with plenty of rest. Once vomiting has subsided, prevent dehydration with sips of clear liquid," says Leslie Mihalov, MD, division chief of Emergency Medicine at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

It's easy for parents to write off symptoms of food-borne illnesses as a stomach or gastrointestinal bug. If your child has bloody diarrhea, there's a good chance that it's caused by a food-borne illness because this symptom is not common with stomach bugs. If your child has a fever, he or she probably doesn't have bacterial food poisoning.


How to prevent bacterial food poisoning

  • Keep warm foods heated and cold foods refrigerated or on ice. If food reaches room temperature, throw it out.
  • Wash hands frequently when preparing foods and when eating food with your hands.
  • If there is any concern that a dish is spoiled, throw it out.
  • Pay attention to the health of those around you. If someone appears to have contracted food poisoning, make sure to throw out the food and wash everyone's hands to prevent further spread of the bacteria.

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Each month, Pediatric HealthSource shares the latest treatment and research advancements from Nationwide Children's Hospital. This column is part of an ongoing community education project brought to you by: Discount Drug Mart.