How can I prevent food poisoning?

POSTED NOVEMBER 21, 2012, 6:00 AM

I recently suffered through a miserable bout of food poisoning. How can I protect myself in the future?


There are few things less fun than food poisoning. I speak from experience, and not just experience as a doctor. Abdominal cramping, vomiting and diarrhea — clearly not an experience you want to repeat. Fortunately, there are many things you can do to protect yourself.

Food poisoning commonly occurs when food or water is contaminated during improper cooking, handling or storage. The most common contaminants are bacteria, such as salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli.

The three things you have to do to prevent food poisoning are to select safe foods, store foods properly and prepare foods safely. How do you do that?

Select safe foods:

Buy foods before their expiration date.
Make certain that cans of food are not dented or bulging. A bulging can could indicate that the food inside is contaminated by a type of bacteria that produces gas.
Avoid foods that contain raw eggs.
Store foods properly:

Refrigerate or freeze perishables immediately.
Check your refrigerator and freezer to make sure they are set to the proper temperatures (41 F for the fridge, 0 F for the freezer).
Thaw food in the refrigerator. Thawing food at room temperature gives bacteria a chance to grow.
Prepare foods safely:

Keep utensils and cooking surfaces clean.
Once you use a utensil to handle raw meat, clean it thoroughly before using it on cooked meat.
Don’t prepare raw meat and fish on the same surface that you use for other foods.
Wash your hands before and after preparing food.
Rinse fruits and vegetables thoroughly.
Clean your cutting board with soap and hot water before and after each use.
Make sure all food is cooked thoroughly, especially poultry. Use a meat thermometer to check.
Serve foods immediately after cooking.
When eating at a restaurant, order cautiously. Be wary of soft cheeses, raw seafood and anything that contains raw eggs.

If you do get food poisoning, focus on preventing dehydration; you lose a lot of fluid through vomiting and diarrhea. You must drink fluids, even if you have trouble keeping them down.

As I’ve discovered, and more than once, it’s not enough to know what to do about selecting, storing and preparing food. You actually have to do these things. Try cutting corners and you’ll pay a price.

reprinted by permission Dr. Anthony Komaroff, Harvard Medical School | In Association with Harvard Health Publications