The holiday season, a time for family, friends and festivity, is here. But there’s something not so cheery that can come along with it: Foodborne illness, which makes a spike during the winter months and especially around the holidays. Thankfully, there are things people can do to keep the illness-causing organisms from ruining the most wonderful time of the year – and the first way is especially close at hand.
“Hand hygiene is the number-one thing that we want to see and remind people to do,” says Dana Edwards, an infection prevention coordinator at CoxHealth. She notes that it’s especially important because not all germs are killed with alcohol sanitizers. “Norovirus – known as the “cruise-ship bug” – is very difficult to kill with alcohol. You want to make sure that you’re mechanically washing with friction, making a lot of bubbles and rinsing them away down the sink. Theoretically that’s removing the organisms from your hands and decreasing the likelihood of getting infected.”
But that’s not all people can do to keep from getting sick. Below, find some more tips from Edwards on how to keep this season a happy – and healthy – one.
- Keep raw foods away from cooked ones. It’s easy for bacteria to unintentionally get from one food to another. For example, before using a fork to sprinkle onions on the green bean casserole, ensure it didn’t touch the raw turkey.
- Be sure to clean surfaces often. According to Edwards, this is more than simply wiping counters down with a wet paper towel. “Preferably clean it first with soap and water, and follow it up with bleach,” she says, noting that you can’t simply start with a an alcohol wipe, either. “We can’t disinfect dirt, so we have to make sure that the counter is clean.” She also notes that when disinfecting, be sure to find wipes that have a bleach base, since some versions use other cleaners that don’t kill organisms the same as bleach does.
- Promptly refrigerate and freeze foods. Ideally, this is within two hours of purchasing or preparing. Another tip: Contrary to longtime tradition, don’t defrost that turkey (or other frozen foods) on the kitchen counter. “Really, the safer way to do it is placing it in the refrigerator,” says Edwards. “That keeps things at a low enough temp that organisms can’t grow as easily.”
- Respect use-by dates. Yes, it might be tempting to go ahead and use that slightly outdated jar of mayonnaise, but is food poisoning really something you want to give your family as an early Christmas gift? “It’s a cliché, but it’s really important to respect those dates,” says Edwards. “After extended periods of time, organisms can begin to grow and cause harm if ingested.”
Unfortunately, it’s easy to spread the illness-causing organisms, which can cause issues within a very short period of time. “A lot of times the outbreak has happened before people realize it,” says Edwards, who also notes that the most common symptoms of foodborne illness are diarrhea, cramping, nausea and vomiting. There are several risk groups – including children, pregnant women and the elderly – who should take those conditions especially seriously.
“But as with any illness, if symptoms persist it is a good idea to call your provider,” reminds Edwards.