Top 7 Germs in Food that Make You Sick

Top 7 Germs in Food that Make You Sick

A raw chicken breast sits on a cutting board.

(Image credit: Raw chicken photo via Shutterstock)

Each year, one in six Americans get sick from contaminated food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Recently, an outbreak of Salmonella in raw tuna sickened at least 200 people, and last year's outbreak of Listeria linked with cantalopes sickened 146 people and led to at least 30 deaths, according to the CDC.

You can reduce your risk of getting sick by knowing where germs are likely to be lurking.

Here are seven common culprits of food-borne disease, and how you can avoid them.

E. coli

Pieces of raw beef sit on a cutting board.

(Image credit: Raw beef photo via Shutterstock)

Escherichia coli bacteria live in the intestines of people and animals such as cows, sheep and goats. They are often found in foods such as undercooked beef, raw milk and juice, and contaminated water. Symptoms of an E. coli infection include severe diarrhea, stomach pain and vomiting which can last five to 10 days.

To avoid E. coli infections, cook meat well, wash fruits and vegetables before eating or cooking them, and avoid unpasteurized milk and juices.

Although most E. coli are relatively harmless, strains such as E. coli O157:H7 can cause bloody diarrhea, kidney failure and even death.


A cow is milked into a bucket.

(Image credit: Raw milk photo via Shutterstock)

Campylobacter jejuni are a spiral-shaped bacteria that grow in chickens and in cows, infecting them without any signs of illness.

Most people who become ill with campylobacteriosis get diarrhea, cramping, stomach pain, and fever within two to five days after exposure. The diarrhea may be bloody and can be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. The illness typically lasts about one week.

In 2005, Campylobacter was found in 47 percent of raw chicken breasts tested through the Food and Drug Administration's National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring, according to the CDC.

About 13 cases of Campylobacteriosis are diagnosed each year for each 100,000 persons in the population. Most infections are generally mild, but the bacteria can be fatal among very young children, elderly and immunosuppressed individuals, according to the World Health Organization.

Ways to prevent Campylobacter infections include making sure to cook meat thoroughly, wash hands after handling raw foods and cleaning all countertops and kitchen utensils after use, and drinking only milk that has been pasteurized.


Piles of sliced lunch meat sit on a cutting board.

(Image credit: Lunch meat photo via Shutterstock)

Listeria monocytogenes are bacteria found in soil and water, and are also present in raw foods as well as in processed foods and unpasteurized milk. Unlike other germs, Listeria can grow and spread even in the cold temperatures of an average refrigerator.

Symptoms of Listeria infections include fever and chills, headache, upset stomach and vomiting. But for some people, the illness can become more serious, even fatal. People at increased risk of getting listeriosis are pregnant women and their unborn fetuses, adults over age 50, and people with weak immune systems.

An estimated 1,600 people become seriously ill with listeriosis each year, according to the CDC. Of these, 260 die.

To prevent Listeria infections, the CDC recommends scrubbing firm produce such as melons and cucumbers with a clean produce brush and cleaning up all refrigerator spills right away, especially juices from raw meat, hot dogs and lunch meat.

Factory-sealed, unopened packages of lunch meat should be stored for no longer than two weeks, and meat sliced at a local deli no longer than three to five days in the refrigerator, the CDC says.


A bowl of cooked mussels.

(Image credit: Mussels photo via Shutterstock)

Vibrio parahaemolyticus bacteria live in saltwater, and are often found in raw seafood.

People who eat raw or undercooked shellfish become infected usually within 24 hours, causing symptoms such as watery diarrhea with stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills.

Symptoms can last up to three days. More severe infections are rare, and occur more commonly in people with weakened immune systems.

An estimated 4,500 cases of V. parahaemolyticus infection occur each year in the U.S., according to the CDC.

Most infections can be prevented by thoroughly cooking seafood.



(Image credit: Boumenjapet | Dreamstime)

More than 60 million men, women, and children in the U.S. carry the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, according to the CDC. But very few have symptoms because the immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness.

Still, there are people who develop toxoplasmosis, experiencing flu-like symptoms such as headache, body aches and fever.

The parasite can also cause serious problems such as damage to the brain, eyes and other organs, for pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.

Most people develop toxoplasmosis infections by coming into contact with cat feces that carry the parasite, eating contaminated meat that is raw or not cooked properly, or drinking water containing the parasite.

To prevent exposure, the CDC recommends cooking foods at a safe temperature, washing hands when handling foods, avoiding drinking untreated water, and if pregnant, staying away from the cat litter.


A raw chicken breast sits on a cutting board.

(Image credit: Raw chicken photo via Shutterstock)

Salmonella is a group of bacteria commonly found in raw poultry, eggs, beef, and sometimes on unwashed fruit and vegetables.

Salmonellosis infections can cause symptoms such as fever, diarrhea, stomach cramps and headache, and tend to last between four to seven days.

Most people get better without treatment, but Salmonella infections can be more serious for the elderly, infants and people with chronic conditions. If not treated properly, Salmonella can spread by blood to other organs, sometimes leading to death.

Every year, about 40,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported in the United States, according to the CDC. Children under age 5 are the most likely to get salmonellosis.

To prevent infection, people should not eat raw or undercooked eggs, poultry, or meat, according to the CDC. Uncooked meats should be kept separate from produce, and cooked and ready-to-eat foods.

Hands, cutting boards, counter tops and kitchen utensils should be washed thoroughly after touching uncooked foods.



(Image credit: Denys Prokofyev | Dreamstime)

Noroviruses are viruses that cause gastroenteritis, an illness that causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines.

Sometimes called the stomach flu, the viruses are usually found in contaminated foods or drinks, but they also can live on surfaces or spread through contact with an infected person.

Gastroenteritis can be highly contagious. Symptoms include nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, fever and fatigue, and tend to last for a few days.

Most people recover from the illness, but for those who can't drink enough fluids to replace what they've lost from vomiting and diarrhea, hospitalization may be needed.

About 23 million norovirus infections occur each year in the U.S., according to the CDC, resulting in an estimated 50,000 hospitalizations and 310 deaths.

To prevent getting infected by the norovirus, wash hands with soap and water frequently, handling foods safely, disinfect contaminated surfaces in your kitchen and bathrooms.

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