Dont Mistake Food Poisoning For Flu; Be Careful During Carnival Season

Elizabeth S. Reames  |  1/31/2006 10:31:09 PM

It's almost impossible to keep your hands clean in a carnival setting, but LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Beth Reames says be sure to use moist towelettes or hand sanitizers if you can't wash your hands before eating. That's just one of her tips for keeping illness or food poisoning out of your carnival season. (Photo copyrighted by and courtesy of New Orleans CVB/Jeff Strout)

News You Can Use For February 2006

Don’t let food poisoning be a memento of the Mardi Gras season," says LSU AgCenter nutritionist and food safety expert Dr. Beth Reames. "By following some simple practices, you can enjoy the festivities without suffering from foodborne illnesses."

Reames says many people think they have the flu or a 24-hour virus when they’re actually suffering from food poisoning. The symptoms are often the same - stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Other symptoms include headaches, chills and fever.

The food safety expert adds that the very young, the elderly, the chronically ill, those with weak immune systems and pregnant women are more at risk of getting sick from foodborne illness. The illness is also more likely to lead to serious conditions in these groups.

In some cases, bacteria grow and produce a toxin in the food before the food is eaten. This occurs with staph food poisoning. You usually will get sick within a short time, in one to four hours. In other cases, the bacteria can reproduce in the food and in the body. Symptoms usually appear within six -12 hours, but it can take longer for illness to occur.

Reames points out that food can be contaminated by the food handler or unclean surroundings. Not washing hands is one of the most common ways to contaminate foods and spread viruses, Reames says, noting, "Trying to keep hands clean in a carnival atmosphere, when you are reaching for beads and trinkets from dirty streets and using unsanitary restrooms, is almost impossible." She recommends taking plenty of moist towelettes or baby wipes with you to clean your hands before touching food.

Although people faithfully pack their beverages on ice, Reames says they often leave food, like fried chicken, in the original box unrefrigerated for several hours, or even all day. Bacteria that cause foodborne illness grow in the temperature danger zone, between 40 F and 140 F. Food contaminated with bacteria can make you sick without looking, smelling or even tasting bad.

Keep perishable foods on ice, the nutritionist recommends. Ice packs in various sizes and shapes are available. If your budget is tight, create your own ice packs. Fill an airtight bag with water within 1 inch of the seal and freeze or make your own ice blocks by freezing water in milk cartons. You can also freeze individual cartons of juice that will help keep foods cold and be available for drinking after thawing.

Reames says fried chicken, potato salad, ham, beef, fish or chicken sandwiches, deviled eggs or egg sandwiches need to be kept cold. Hamburgers and hot dogs must be kept cold before cooking and kept hot afterward. Freeze meat sandwiches the night before the festivities.

Contrary to old lore, Reames says mayonnaise does not cause food poisoning. In fact, acids in the condiment actually slow bacterial growth.

Foods that don’t require refrigeration include peanut butter/jelly sandwiches, hard cheeses, unopened canned meats or canned fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, cookies, crackers, chips, breads, fruit pies and fruit juices.

If you depend on street vendors for food, check to see if their concession stands have the facilities to keep their hamburgers and hot dogs refrigerated before cooking and hot after cooking. Look at how clean their equipment appears and if the handlers’ practices are sanitary.

"Safe food centers around three basic principles," Reames says. "Keep food, hands and equipment clean. Keep hot foods hot - above 140 F, or keep cold foods cold - below 40 F."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year in the United States an estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness occur. An estimated 325,000 of these cases lead to hospitalization and, for 5,000 people, the illness leads to death. The government defines foodborne illness as the result of eating food that is contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or toxins.

For additional information about food safety, contact an extension agent in your parish LSU AgCenter office. For related nutrition information, click on the Family and Home link on the LSU AgCenter home page, at


On the Internet: LSU AgCenter:

Source: Beth Reames (225) 578-3929, or

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