Poison Control Center Tips on Preventing Illness this Holiday Season

A Rutgers New Jersey Poison Control Center expert discusses how children and adults can reduce risks of poisoning


Newswise — Each year, an estimated 48 million Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of food poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In November and December 2018, New Jersey Poison Control fielded 291 calls about food preparation, serving and storage.

Getting sick from eating contaminated food is common, and contamination can occur at any point during the food production chain — from production to preparation whether at a restaurant or at home. 

“Forgetting about food safety is a recipe for disaster,” said Diane Calello, executive and medical director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School’s Department of Emergency Medicine. “Don’t prepare food if you have any kind of respiratory illness or infection, as this puts your guests at risk of becoming ill. No matter how busy your kitchen gets during the holidays, always remember the risks of improperly handling food.” 

Calello offers the following advice to avoid the risks of poisoning:

How can people safely prepare and serve food?

People should remember these four steps: clean, separate, cook and chill. Wash your hands and surfaces often during food preparation using warm water and soap. Rinse all vegetables. Be careful of cross-contamination: Keep raw meats and seafood separate from other food when grocery shopping and in the refrigerator and use separate cutting boards during preparation. Use a food thermometer to make sure foods are cooked to a safe internal temperature. Keep your refrigerator below 40°F and know when you should discard food. Refrigerate perishable food within two hours. Thaw frozen food in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave, and never on the counter. Foodborne germs – bacteria, parasites, viruses – can grow very quickly in foods left at room temperature for more than two hours.

What are the symptoms of food poisoning?

Food poisoning can happen just a few hours after consuming contaminated food. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhea and fever.

Who is especially vulnerable to food poisoning?

While everyone is at risk for food poisoning, certain groups such as young children, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems from medical conditions are more likely to get sick and develop a serious illness. 

What are some common questions the Poison Center hears during the holidays — and how do you answer them?

“I ate stuffing cooked in the turkey. Will I get sick?” Although you may not always get sick, it is not a good idea to eat stuffing cooked inside the turkey. It is more likely to be inadequately cooked and contain harmful bacteria.

“My 3-year-old swallowed two of my mother-in-law’s blood pressure pills. What should I do?” Call your local Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 immediately. Beware of medications brought in by household guests, which can be very toxic to a young child.

How can people stay safe when drinking alcohol and recognize alcohol poisoning?

Intoxication can lead to death or permanent brain damage. People consume alcohol more frequently during the holidays, so it’s important to understand how to drink safely and recognize alcohol poisoning.

People often consider how many drinks they’ve had, but don’t take into account the volume or alcohol content of those drinks. A standard drink is said to be: 12 ounces of beer at 5 percent alcohol by volume, 5 ounces of wine at 12 percent alcohol by volume or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor at 40 percent alcohol by volume. Most alcoholic drinks are not consistently measured, which makes it difficult to know exactly how much alcohol you are consuming. In addition, drinks today, especially craft beers, often have a much higher alcohol content than they did in the past.

Critical signs of alcohol poisoning include mental confusion, stupor, inability to wake up, slow or irregular breathing, blue skin color or low body heat vomiting or seizures. “Sleeping it off” is never a safe option. A person who appears to be very drunk or has passed out may be showing early signs of alcohol poisoning and be in real danger. Immediate medical help is essential. Most states provide immunity from arrest and prosecution for anyone who in good faith seeks medical assistance for an overdose victim, as well as immunity for the person suffering the overdose.

If you have any poisoning concerns, contact your local Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

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