Prevent illness. Wash your hands

October 15, 2008|By LYNN LITTLE

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that foodborne illness sickens 76 million people, requires about 325,000 hospitalizations, and causes 5,000 deaths in the United States annually.

The numbers may not tell the whole story because the symptoms of foodborne illness - abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and dehydration - are often mistaken for the flu or a minor stomach upset.

Symptoms might occur soon after eating a contaminated food item, or they might not become apparent for several weeks. Hepatitis A, a viral disease that affects the liver, is an example of an illness spread via contaminated food. It can be spread through direct contact such as shaking hands or through food that has been prepared by an infected person.

Symptoms of Hepatitis A include fever, tiredness, loss of appetite, nausea, dark urine and jaundice. Symptoms may not be apparent immediately, but can linger for two to six months. And some people who contract Hepatitis A show no symptoms.


In contrast, the norovirus is a fast-acting virus that leaves the body quickly. The norovirus can be spread by an food handler who is infected or whose hands have touched a surface such as a doorknob. The norovirus can spread quickly between people in close contact with each other at home or in a public place.

Symptoms of norovirus include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps that can begin suddenly and may last one to two days.

All of us are somewhat vulnerable to foodborne illness. But certain populations face an increased risk. These include infants and children, whose immune systems are not yet fully developed; the elderly, whose immune systems may be compromised by aging, poor nutrition or chronic illness; pregnant women and people undergoing medical treatments such as chemotherapy.

Something as simple as washing hands after using the restroom can be effective in reducing the risks of any foodborne illness.

Food safety experts recommend washing hands with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds:

o before and after handling food

o after using the restroom or helping a child use the restroom

o after changing a diaper (both caregiver and child)

o after handling pets

o after tending to a sick person

o after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing

Keeping the kitchen clean also can reduce foodborne illness. Experts recommend disinfecting kitchen surfaces with a mixture of one quart of water and one teaspoon of regular, unscented, household bleach.

Food contamination can be stopped with a little know-how and such everyday weapons as soap and hot water, a refrigerator and a food thermometer. Go to for more tips.

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryalnd Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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