Woman concerned about the status of her leftovers

Food Safety and Food Poisoning

Nov 15, 2023 Wellness and Healthy Living Share:

Most of us love to buy, cook, and eat food, but are we handling, cooking, and eating food correctly? Or are we leaving ourselves open to the risk of food poisoning?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 48 million people in the United States (or around 1 out of 7) contract some form of food poisoning every year. Of those 48 million people, 128,000 are hospitalized.

With these high numbers, it’s important to understand food safety and how to prevent food poisoning. This article will look at what causes food poisoning and, more importantly, how to avoid it.

In a hurry? Jump to specific questions below:

What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning, a type of foodborne illness, is caused by eating contaminated, spoiled, or toxic food or drink. It happens when germs or bacteria, such as Campylobacter (the most common cause of food poisoning), Salmonella, or E. coli, contaminate our food or beverage.

You can easily contaminate food by:

  • Not cooking or reheating it thoroughly
  • Not storing it correctly
  • Leaving it out too long
  • Being handled by someone who is ill or has not washed their hands
  • Eating food that is past its ‘expiration’ date.

Food poisoning isn't usually serious, and most people get better within a few days, but it's not pleasant, so it’s best to try and avoid it.

What are the symptoms of food poisoning?

Symptoms of food poisoning can range from mild to very severe depending on the source of infection, but there are some common symptoms. These are:

  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain or cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • A loss of appetite
  • A lack of energy and weakness
  • Aching muscles
  • Chills

The symptoms of food poisoning can take between a few hours to a few days to start, depending on the cause of your food poisoning.

How does food get contaminated?

Food poisoning has three major causes: bacteria, parasites, and viruses. These pathogens can be found in almost all the food we eat; however, the heat from cooking kills the pathogens before they reach our plates.

Foods eaten raw are common sources of food poisoning because they don’t go through the cooking process.

Food can become contaminated anywhere – from the farm to the grocery stores to the table. It can quite quickly become infected in your home due to:

  • Not cooking or reheating it thoroughly.
  • Not storing it correctly - foods left out for too long at room temperature or left in the refrigerator for too long can become contaminated.
  • Being handled by someone ill or who hasn't washed their hands - feces or vomit can remain on the hands if they aren’t cleaned properly (with soap and water for 20 seconds).
  • Eating food that is past its ‘expiration’ date.
  • Not disinfecting cooking or eating areas - unwashed knives, cutting boards, or other kitchen tools can spread germs quickly.

What are the most common types of food poisoning?

There are more than 250 specific types of food poisoning, but we will look at six of the most common ones.


You probably haven't heard of Campylobacter, but it is the most common cause of food poisoning. It usually appears in uncooked poultry, meat or eggs, poorly processed meats, contaminated vegetables, and raw (unprocessed) milk or water sources.

Symptoms include diarrhea (which may be bloody), cramping, abdominal pain, and fever, and usually arise within two to five days of eating the contaminated food.


Salmonella is the most common bacterial food cause of food poisoning in the U.S. and is responsible for the highest number of hospitalizations and deaths from food poisoning. Poultry, eggs, and dairy products most often cause it. Other foods include fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, nuts, nut products, and spices.

Most people experience diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps. Symptoms can arise between six hours and six days of consuming the contaminated food, usually lasting four to seven days.

E-coli (officially called Escherichia Coli)

E. coli is usually found in undercooked meat, contaminated water, and raw vegetables, producing toxins that irritate your small intestines.

Symptoms include diarrhea (often bloody), stomach cramps, vomiting, and fever.

Signs and symptoms usually occur three or four days after exposure to the bacteria. But you may become ill as soon as one day after exposure to it more than a week later. You will likely get better within five to seven days.


Bacteria in soft cheeses, deli meats, hot dogs, unpasteurized milk, soft cheeses from unpasteurized milk, refrigerated smoked fish, refrigerated pates, and raw sprouts can cause listeriosis.

Listeriosis is a life-threatening infection that primarily affects pregnant women and their newborns, older adults, and people with immune systems weakened by cancer, cancer treatments, or other severe conditions (like diabetes, kidney failure, liver disease, and HIV.

A person with listeriosis usually has fever and muscle aches, sometimes preceded by diarrhea or other gastrointestinal symptoms. It is essential to contact a doctor as antibiotics are needed to treat it.


You can get norovirus by eating undercooked shellfish, leafy greens, and fresh fruits or by consuming food a sick person prepares. This virus is most associated with stomach flu.

Symptoms include sudden onset of nausea, projectile vomiting, and diarrhea, but you may also suffer from a high temperature, abdominal pain, and aching limbs.

Symptoms usually arise between 12-48 hours of exposure to the contamination. It typically lasts one to two days for most people, although some may be ill or feel the effects for up to six days.

Hepatitis A

Viral hepatitis A can be spread through shellfish, fresh produce, or water and ice contaminated by stool. It’s not a chronic infection like other hepatitis viruses, but it can affect your liver.

The illness is usually mild. Symptoms include fever, malaise, loss of appetite, diarrhea, nausea, abdominal discomfort, dark-colored urine, and jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin).

It starts about two to four weeks after consuming the contaminated food or water and resolves in one to two weeks.

How is food poisoning treated?

In most cases, you can manage food poisoning at home simply by staying hydrated and resting but don't hesitate to seek medical help if your symptoms worsen or persist.

Staying hydrated and replacing electrolytes is the most important thing you can do as you lose a lot of fluids through diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. You should drink plenty of liquids such as water, fruit juices with water added to dilute the juice, sports drinks, and broths.

Eating saltine crackers can help replace electrolytes. If you or your child are struggling to keep liquids down and vomiting is a problem, try sipping small amounts of clear liquids.

Children, adults with a weakened immune system, or adults with severe diarrhea should seek medical help. Your doctor can prescribe oral rehydration solutions, such as Pedialyte, Naturalyte, Infalyte, and CeraLyte with glucose and electrolytes.

Antibiotics are needed to treat some food poisoning caused by bacteria or parasites – your doctor or healthcare professional will be able to confirm if you need them.

If you become dehydrated, you may need to get fluids directly into the bloodstream at a medical facility.

How can I prevent food poisoning?

You can prevent food poisoning by properly storing, cooking, cleaning, and handling foods (the Four Cs):

  • Clean: wash your hands (with soap and water for 20 seconds) and utensils before using them to prepare food. Wash and disinfect all surfaces your food touches, including cutting boards, countertops, and plates, before and after each use. Wash fruits and vegetables before eating, cutting, or cooking.
  • Cook: Take care to cook foods long enough and at high enough temperatures to kill germs.
  • Chill: Ensure you promptly refrigerate or freeze foods that can spoil. Refrigerate or freeze prepared foods within two hours of cooking to keep bacteria from breeding. Check your refrigerated foods for mold. Throw out dairy products if they have passed their expiration dates or have an “off” smell.
  • Cross–contamination: Avoid cross-contamination by separating raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from other foods. Prepare salads and refrigerate them before handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs.

What is the safe temperature for cooking meats?

It’s important to note there are different temperatures for cooking various meats to ensure they are safe to eat. The table below from gives detailed information on the temperature at which your meat should be cooked.

Food Item

Safe Minimum Internal Temperature

Beef, Pork, Veal, Lamb (steak, roast, chops)

145°F (63°C) and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes

Ground Meats (beef, pork, veal, lamb)

160°F (71°C)

Ground Poultry (chicken, turkey)

165°F (74°C)

Whole Poultry (chicken, turkey, duck)

165°F (74°C)

Poultry Breasts

165°F (74°C)

Poultry Thighs, Wings

165°F (74°C)

Fresh Pork

145°F (63°C) and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes

Ham (fresh or smoked, uncooked)

145°F (63°C) and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes


145°F (63°C)

Shrimp, Lobster, Crab

Cook until flesh is pearly or white, and opaque


Cook until flesh is milky white or opaque and firm


Cook until yolk and white are firm

Egg Dishes

160°F (71°C)

Leftovers and Casseroles

165°F (74°C)

How long can I leave food out at room temperature?

The best way to be sure is to remember the two-hour rule. Don’t eat food that has been sitting out at typical room temperature for more than two hours. The time frame shortens to an hour in temperatures over 90 degrees. This time frame includes when the food is on the table during your meal.

Can I tell if food is unsafe to eat by the way it looks, smells, or tastes?

Unfortunately, you can’t tell if food is unsafe to eat by the way it looks, smells, or tastes. You need to know the difference between food spoilage and food poisoning bacteria.

Food spoilage

This is the reduction in the quality of food caused by micro-organisms. These can be yeasts, molds, fungi, or bacteria that will eventually grow on any food.

These organisms are often smelled, seen, or tasted, such as the smell of spoiled milk, that blue fuzzy stuff growing in your leftovers, or bread that tastes like “dirt,” which is actually mold you haven’t seen yet.

Spoiled foods often have a different color than when they were fresh, feel slimy, or smell rotten. While spoiled food doesn’t always lead to food poisoning, it is almost impossible to know beforehand if the spoiled food will result in a foodborne illness.

Food poisoning bacteria

This bacteria will make you sick and cause food poisoning. Unfortunately, these organisms cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted; it often takes very few to infect a person.

How should I store and reheat leftovers?

Before storing leftovers, it’s a good idea to check the temperature of your refrigerator. The best temperature is 36-38F, so food can be held at 40F or below. Also, don’t be tempted to pack your refrigerator; cool air must circulate to keep food safe.

Here are some easy tips to help your store and reheat food properly:

  1. Has the food been out for more than two hours? If it has – throw it away – (don’t forget it's one hour if the temperature is over 90F).
  2. Bring down the temperature of leftovers as quickly as possible. Use shallow containers and cut larger foods into smaller pieces for quicker cooling. To accelerate cooling, place the food in airtight storage containers in an ice or cold-water bath before refrigerating.
  3. Choose high-quality, airtight food storage containers over wraps, takeout containers, and other flimsy or mismatched plastic pieces. Fill it as much as possible to eliminate extra air space.
  4. Use refrigerated leftovers within three to five days.
  5. When reheating leftovers, ensure they are covered and reach 165F as measured with a food thermometer.
  6. When using the microwave to reheat leftovers, ensure the food is evenly heated throughout by stirring your dish halfway through.
  7. Let your food stand for one minute before inserting a food thermometer to ensure it reaches the proper internal temperature of 165F.

What is the best way to thaw food?

Never thaw frozen food by simply taking it out of the freezer. It's best to plan ahead and thaw in the refrigerator where it will remain at a safe, constant temperature - at 40 °F or below.

There are three safe ways to thaw food:

  1. In the refrigerator – this is the slowest thawing process, so plan your timing based on the item size you need to thaw.
  2. Under cold water – place the food in a leak-proof package or plastic bag and submerge it in cold tap water. You must change the water every 30 minutes so it continues to thaw.
  3. In the microwave – this is best when planning to cook the food immediately after thawing. Some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during thawing, so you must cook it immediately.

What steps can I take to ensure food safety at home?

If you follow the Four Cs (see above), you can be content that you are handling your food safely at home.

Ensure you take care with hand hygiene (washing with water and soap for 20 seconds), and keep surfaces and equipment clean. Cook food to the right temperature and store leftovers correctly. Take care to separate raw foods from those in your shopping cart, bags, and refrigerator.

When should I call my doctor?

As mentioned before, in most cases, you can manage food poisoning at home simply by staying hydrated and resting.

Call your doctor or healthcare provider if you are pregnant or breastfeeding or if you are caring for a child who is having trouble keeping fluids down. Children become dehydrated more easily than adults do.

Call your doctor or healthcare provider if you or your child have any unusual symptoms, such as:

  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than three days
  • High fever (temperature over 102°F)
  • Blurred vision
  • Vomiting so often that you cannot keep liquids down
  • Signs of dehydration include not urinating (peeing) much, a dry mouth and throat, feeling dizzy when standing up

Can I go to work or school if I have had food poisoning?

If you have had food poisoning, stay home for at least 48 hours after diarrhea or vomiting. Stay home for at least 24 hours after a fever.

Make sure to let your school or workplace know about the infection, especially if you or your child were infected while you were there.

Don't let food poisoning ruin your day.

Nobody wants to become unwell, especially with foodborne illnesses that are easily preventable. Remember the Four Cs: cleaning, cooking, chilling, cross-contamination – and you won’t go wrong. If you suspect you have food poisoning, our experts at MedHelp Clinic are ready to help. Visit us today and let us get you back on your feet – with flexible clinic hours, we are here when you need us.