Don't let food-borne illness spoil your summer fun!
Outdoor picnics and barbecues are among summer's pleasures. But rising temperatures also can bring increased risks for food-borne illness.
Fortunately, following some simple steps can help keep you and your guests from becoming sick due to contaminated or undercooked food. Don't forget to:
- Wash your hands before, while, and after preparing food - Use a gel hand sanitizer if soap and water are unavailable
- Keep coolers cool - Refrigerated foods should stay below 40 degrees, so load your cooler with enough ice or ice packs to maintain this temperature - Transport coolers in an air-conditioned car, not in a hot trunk - Be sure to clean coolers thoroughly before and after use
- Keep raw meat away from ready-to-eat foods at all times - Use different utensils for each
Harmful bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella can lurk in undercooked meat. When grilling meat, poultry, and seafood, following these tips can help avoid food-borne illness:
- Use hot, soapy water to scrub the grill and rinse it well before and after cooking
- Marinate food in a refrigerator or cooler - Don't use marinade again once it has touched raw meat
- Use a thermometer to check temperatures inside meat as you cook - Food often turns brown fast on the grill but stays red inside - Push the thermometer into the center of the meat - When checking hot dogs, go from the end to the center - The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends cooking hamburgers to 160 degrees and hot dogs and chicken breasts to 165 degrees - Steaks and lamb or pork chops should be cooked to 145 degrees, then allowed to sit three minutes before serving - The "rest time" helps kill any remaining bacteria
- Don't partially grill meat or poultry with plans to finish cooking it later
- Don't place cooked meat on platters that held raw meat - Use clean utensils to handle cooked meat
Prepared foods should be kept at safe temperatures. Remember to:
- Serve first-cooked meats first - Make sure meat is eaten before the temperature falls below 140 degrees
- Keep foods that need to stay cold in coolers kept at 40 degrees
- Wash hands thoroughly before serving prepared food
- Refrigerate leftovers promptly after serving - Food left unrefrigerated at room temperature for more than two hours (or just one hour in 90-degree heat) may not be safe to eat
- Cover plates, utensils, cups, and food until it's time to use them
More tips for a healthy summer
Summer's also the time to think about taking precautions against West Nile virus and tick-borne diseases.
Spread by mosquitoes, West Nile virus can cause a serious and sometimes fatal infection. However, a study published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases suggests that taking measures to avoid mosquito bites can decrease the risk of being exposed to this virus by about 50 percent. To help deter mosquitoes:
- Use an insect repellent that contains DEET
- Wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and socks when you're outside between dusk and dawn—peak mosquito hours
- Put netting over infant carriers and strollers
- Keep window and door screens repaired
- Drain any standing water outside your home to deter mosquito breeding - Check gutters, pool covers, old tires, and open receptacles
Most people bitten by a mosquito infected with the West Nile virus will not get sick. However, about 20 percent develop an illness called West Nile fever. Symptoms include mild fever, headache, body aches, skin rash, and swollen lymph glands. This illness commonly lasts from a few days to a few weeks.
In a small number of people—less than 1 percent—the West Nile virus enters the brain. This form of West Nile infection is most common in older people and those with weakened immune systems. This life-threatening condition can cause high fever, headache, stiff neck, lethargy, confusion, tremors, and difficulty breathing.
If you have been bitten by a mosquito and experience any troubling symptoms, see a doctor immediately.
Avoiding tick-borne illnesses
Ticks can spread serious illnesses, such as Lyme disease. Steering clear of ticks' favorite haunts—wooded, grassy, and brushy sites, including those near beaches and sand dunes—can reduce the risk of bites. When this isn't possible, follow these precautions:
- Wear light-colored, long-sleeved shirts and long pants to make it easier to spot crawling ticks - Tuck pant legs into socks to keep ticks from crawling up your legs
- Apply an insect repellent containing DEET to exposed skin
- Check your skin and scalp at the end of the day. Take off clothing and use a mirror to check hard-to-see places
If a tick has latched on to you, remove it as soon as you can. Contrary to popular belief, applying petroleum jelly or a hot match to a tick won't make the critter detach itself. To properly remove an attached tick:
- Use fine-tipped tweezers and protect your fingers with a tissue or latex gloves
- Grasp the tick close to the surface of your skin and pull upward using even pressure - Try not to twist or jerk the tick, since this can cause parts of the mouth to break off and remain in your skin - If this happens, remove those parts with the tweezers
- After removing the tick, disinfect the bite site with iodine, rubbing alcohol, or water containing detergent - Wash your hands with soap and water
- Put the tick in a sealable plastic bag marked with the date and store it in a freezer - If you come down with a tick-borne illness, your doctor can use the tick to make an accurate diagnosis
Symptoms of tick-borne illnesses can vary. Seek medical attention if you develop any of these symptoms after being bitten: fever, chills, muscle aches and pains, headache, nausea, or a rash.