10 Unexpected Ways to Get Food Poisoning

By: Alia Hoyt
Opportunities for food poisoning lurk everywhere.
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You know not to keep mayonnaise-based dishes out of the refrigerator for too long and that questionable chicken is never worth the risk. If only managing those two well-known, common culprits were enough to keep food poisoning at bay! Sadly, foodborne illness lurks around many corners, some that most of us have never even thought of before.

Food poisoning is incredibly preventable, but we routinely fail to take the appropriate steps to keep it from attacking. There are many viral, bacterial and parasitic agents that cause food poisoning, with some of the most commonly known being salmonella, Escheridia coli (E. coli) and listeria. Equally as gross is the fact that illnesses like rotavirus and Hepatitis A can actually be passed from an infected food handler to the product, putting the consumer at significant risk. Foods tainted with toxins and chemicals are also extremely risky.


Although there are more than 250 types of foodborne illness, they generally start off sporting similar, undesirable gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting, nausea, fever, abdominal pain/cramps and watery diarrhea [sources: CDC, Mayo Clinic]. Most cases will pass in a matter of days without a trip to the doctor or hospital, but food poisoning can – and does – kill. In fact, roughly 3,000 people die from foodborne illness each year in the United States alone [source: CDC]. Check out these surprising ways that foodborne illness strikes and provide yourself with an extra layer of protection from these punishing illnesses.

10: Not Cleaning Your Fridge

Leftovers, spills and uneaten fruits and veggies all contribute to making your fridge a biohazard.

Even the cleanest of homes sometimes has a dirty little secret – the refrigerator. Leftovers, hidden spills and uneaten fruits and veggies pile up, causing crowded, unattractive conditions. Far worse than the visual effects of a messy fridge are the various bacteria, viruses and parasites which multiply in droves, sometimes in unseen ways.

About one-quarter of foodborne illnesses can be stopped before they start, simply by being more vigilant about fridge cleanliness. Refrigerator maintenance is relatively quick and easy, plus it'll help you make space and avoid turning the appliance into a giant game of Tetris. First, regularly review the contents of your fridge and get rid of leftovers and foods that have passed their expiration or "use by" dates. If you aren't sure whether something's still good or not, err on the side of caution and toss it in the trash. Most foods will start to smell or look bad once they're past their prime, but others will still appear perfectly fine, so use your best judgement.


Although refrigerator spills are easy to ignore, experts advise that they be cleaned up promptly and thoroughly. While you're at it, wipe down shelves and drawers every week or two with soap and water or a mild bleach solution. Whenever possible, sanitize the handle to the refrigerator door. Much like bathroom doorknobs, it is the most frequently handled part of the fridge, therefore subject to bonus germs of all types [sources: Zelman, Home Food Safety].

9: Having Sex

A grouper can harbor toxins that travel by semen to a sexual partner.
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Add this to the list of ways scientists keep taking the fun out of sex. Although it's a far cry from chlamydia, there is a type of food poisoning that is sexually transmitted. This dastardly disease is known as ciguatera fish poisoning, and is initially contracted when a person eats a seafood dinner that, unbeknownst to them, includes a side of fish toxins. This happens when a single-celled protozoan cozies up to algae found on tropical reefs, creating a ciguatoxin. Various marine life consume the algae, other fishes munch on them and so on until the biggest and baddest fish in the sea (like grouper and red snapper) have eaten so many that the toxin accumulates in their systems. When said fish is hooked and eaten, it passes its secret treasure along to whoever's eating it. Then, when he goes home for a little nookie, the poison actually travels via semen to the sexual partner [source: Doucleff]. Sounds like yet another marketing opportunity for condom companies, to me!

Symptoms of ciguatera fish poisoning include gastrointestinal upset, painful sex and cardiovascular issues [source: Friedman, et al.]. Many people even report neurological issues, such as opposite reactions to temperature, with cold things feeling hot, and vice versa. Currently incurable, treatment is sometimes effective, but has to be administered immediately after onset otherwise the patient is left to tough it out for weeks, or even months. Although it might seem totally off the wall to those of us in temperate climates, it's actually fairly common in tropical regions. The booming fish import trade, however, is threatening to change all of that, bringing the disease further north and inland [source: Doucleff].


So how do you avoid ciguatera fish poisoning? Be aware of warnings when in regions experiencing outbreaks or avoid consuming larger types of fish altogether. There literally are many fish in the sea, so there's no sense in eating one that'll make you so very sick!

8: Not Washing Your Hands

This cooking school student has learned the importance of hand-washing before preparing food.
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Precious few habits or steps will reduce your risk of food poisoning more than washing your hands before, in the midst of and after preparing food [source: Beach]. The thing about E. coli and other foodborne illness-causing germs (or any germs, for that matter) is that they're invisible. So even if your hands look clean as a whistle, they could actually be breeding some pretty nasty stuff. Common chores like using the bathroom and changing diapers are obvious ways that fecal germs are transferred to the hands. However, many other activities, like touching a contaminated surface, petting an animal or handling raw meat (which sometimes sports visually undetectable animal poop) can set you up for a world of hurt [source: CDC].

Fortunately, proper handwashing is as easy as singing "Happy Birthday." Seriously, experts recommend scrubbing with soap and water for about 20 seconds (roughly the same amount of time it takes to sing the popular ditty). Dry hands with a clean towel and voila! Germ-free hands that'll reduce your risk of foodborne illness by a pretty wide margin [source: Beach].


7: Drinking Untreated Water

Egyptian students from the al-Azhar University rest in a hospital in Cairo late in 2013, after hundreds suffered food poisoning at a dormitory.

Water is nature's fruit juice, so it should be totally pure and safe, right? Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Untreated water is a breeding ground for organisms like salmonella and E. coli which are typically found in – try not to gag – fecal matter. Most countries have adequate water treatment protocols in place, but plenty of others don't. Ever heard of Montezuma's Revenge? It's alive and well in many developing countries that travelers like to frequent. Even if you avoid drinking straight tap water, you're still at risk when you brush your teeth or eat fruits or veggies washed in said H2O. The fact is, if you're used to clean, treated water and jet-set to a locale that isn't as vigilant you're at a pretty high risk for some uncomfortable symptoms [source: WebMD].

Interestingly, well water still exists in developed countries around the world, and poses the same threats [source: NIH]. So here's a tip: if you visit the home of someone who insists on using a well, opt for a bottle of soda, instead of homemade iced tea or coffee. They're used to the microbes, but your intestines are not ideally suited for such an assault!


6: Unsanitary Kitchen Practices

Don't wipe the kitchen down with a germy sponge. Make sure it's clean.
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Meal prep can be pretty chaotic. First something splatters then a pot boils over and the next thing you know you're mistakenly using the same cutting board for your carrots that you just used for chicken. Whoops. Sanitation corners are sometimes cut, often by accident, leaving us at elevated risk for cross-contamination. Although it doesn't seem like there's very much harm in using the same knife, tongs or other utensils, it really does behoove you to separate the items you use for meat prep from the others. So if a platter is used to carry raw meat to the grill grab another one to transport the cooked product, unless you want to dress your burger with ketchup, tomato and a heaping helping of bacteria [source: Zamora].

Heating meats and dishes to an appropriate temperature is crucial to killing any illness-causing bacteria. The experts recommend using a meat thermometer to check internal temperature of poultry, seafood, meat and egg-based dishes. For example, pork, ground beef, egg dishes and casseroles should be heated to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71 C), with chicken checking in at 165 F (74 C) [source: Home Food Safety]. Even if rare is your preference, the risk might not be worth the dubious reward that is foodborne illness.


When cleaning up, be sure to do a thorough job with an antibacterial solvent and a clean cloth or sponge. Using an old, germ-ridden sponge is a fantastic way to help the spread of bacteria and viruses as far as the eye cannot see in your kitchen. Not sure about the sanitation quality of your sponge? Certain types can actually be run through the dishwasher or microwaved, effectively removing 99 percent of germs [source: Amidor]. Or spring for a new one because sponges are far less pricey than the average emergency room visit.

5: Vitamin Overdose

You can actually get vitamin poisoning from ingesting too many supplements — and the symptoms are similar to food poisoning.
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Although not food poisoning in the typical bacterial or viral sense, vitamin overdoses happen because people eat or drink too much of a particular food or beverage (or by taking supplements), flooding their systems with normally helpful vitamins and minerals. As it turns out, you actually can have too much of a good thing and the end result is known as vitamin poisoning.

The symptoms of vitamin poisoning are almost identical to that of traditional foodborne illness, and include diarrhea, stomach cramps and nausea. Common culprits are vitamin C, selenium and zinc. Eating too many fortified foods like certain cereals, pastas and energy bars, as well as taking a multivitamin, is one easy way to suffer from this malady [source: Nierenberg]. The next time you get a cold, resist the urge to knock back 3 gallons of orange juice, and instead enjoy the vitamin C-laden beverage in moderation, along with other fluids. There's no sense in turning a mild illness into extreme diarrheal discomfort, now is there?


4: Dining Out

Restaurants are often carriers of vomit-inducing bacteria. And you can't always tell from the way the restaurant looks.

Have you ever been in a public bathroom when someone exited a stall and made a beeline for the door without stopping to wash their hands? As nasty as that is, just imagine if that person was on his or her way to fix you a nice, juicy cheeseburger. Gulp. Although most fast food and other eateries are dedicated to providing a sanitary dining experience, some leave much to be desired.

Sadly, a cornucopia of foodborne illness risks can rear their ugly heads in the restaurant setting, with cross-contamination and insufficient hand-washing probably being the most likely offenders. Restaurants are governed by their local departments of health, which conduct regular, random inspections. These inspectors are especially interested in measures to prevent foodborne illness including temperature control for high-risk foods, employee hygiene practices and the manager's knowledge of illness prevention measures. Depending on how the inspection goes, the restaurant can be declared awesome via a posted report card, flagged for concerns to varying degrees or temporarily shut down [source: DC.gov].


Since I prefer to come home from an evening out with leftovers, rather than a case of salmonella, I like to at least scan the posted score card. It helps me know if I can dine in peace or if I should run screaming for a safer kitchen.

3: Washing Pre-Washed Lettuce

Rinsing prewashed lettuce can actually introduce more germs to your produce.
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My life, like many of yours, is jam-packed to the nth degree, so I like to take shortcuts wherever possible. Yet, despite the fact that most bagged lettuce and veggies proudly sport "pre-washed" status on their packaging, a little voice in the back of my mind always nagged me to give 'em an extra rinse. It turns out that my lazy instinct is potentially the smarter one, at least in the professional opinions of many food safety specialists.

The rationale is actually pretty sound. For example, if you take a pre-washed, perfectly clean bag of roughage and expose it to a bacteria-laced sink, cutting board or colander, you're totally wrecking the goods and setting yourself up for a king-sized stomachache. Also, even if the bagged lettuce or broccoli florets are contaminated with something as vicious as salmonella, your quick rinse isn't going to fix matters. In fact, nothing short of cooking will eradicate those heavy-duty germs [source: Charles].


If you're still not willing to trust Big Produce with washing duty, it's easy to take care of lettuce handling safely. Simply take steps to avoid cross-contamination (like cleaning the sink first if you just used it to rinse meat), then rinse the lettuce and store in a refrigerator at less than 40 F (4 C) to inhibit or prevent bacteria growth [source: CBS New York].

2: Using Reusable Grocery Bags

Only 15 percent of American users wash their grocery tote bags regularly — making them a perfect breeding ground for bacteria.
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Reusable grocery bags might be kind to Mother Earth, but if they're not properly maintained they can be pretty terrible on your tummy. A paltry 15 percent of American users wash said bags on a regular basis, giving bacteria the perfect spot to take up residence, thrive and eventually wreak havoc [source: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics].

This is yet another sordid case of cross-contamination because meat juices can easily leak into the bag, or otherwise germ-ridden foods/packaging can make the transfer. Before you run screaming back to plastic, heed this: this little catastrophe can be prevented by following a couple of simple steps. Most grocery baggers are savvy enough to wrap raw meat products in a plastic bag before stowing them in your reusable, so make sure to take the same route when you find yourself doing the legwork. Then, be sure to thoroughly wash your reusable bags on a regular basis to prevent or eliminate the buildup of germs. Cloth bags can be put through the laundry, while a thorough washing with hot, soapy water followed by a complete air-dry is ideal for plastic-lined totes [source: Foodsafety.gov].


1: Packing Your Own Lunch

If you're taking your own lunch to work, be sure to keep the items in the fridge or use a freezer pack.

When you pack your own lunch you're avoiding the excess calories, fat and cost that typically come with eating out. If you're doing it for a child, you're sparing them the horror of cafeteria food (trust me, it hasn't gotten any better since my grade school days, possibly even worse). Unfortunately, brown-bagging it isn't as simple as it used to be, thanks to our ever-growing understanding of foodborne illness.

Even if a packed lunch is only out of the fridge for a few hours that's plenty of time for bacteria to grow and multiply. Common midday staples like deli meat, yogurt and eggs are especially high in risk. Two reusable freezer packs are recommended when such items are present, although you can also substitute one with a frozen juice box. The beverage will thaw gradually by lunchtime, providing both cold, germ-resistant capabilities and a refreshing thirst-quencher when the time comes. Betcha never knew that apple juice had such impressive abilities!

Experts also recommend springing for an insulated lunchbox, rather than the old-fashioned paper bag. Condensation from cold packs can and will soak through and tear the bags right up, plus they won't provide a chilly enough atmosphere to prevent food spoilage [source: U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Unexpected Ways to Get Food Poisoning

We've probably all had a mild case of food poisoning at one time or another, but those of us who've endured the Mack-Daddy variety wish at all costs to avoid a repeat. All the inadvertent weight loss in the world isn't worth it!

Related Articles

More Great Links

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  • Amidor, Toby. "In Your Kitchen: Counter-Top Safety." Food Network. Jan. 25, 2012 (July 3, 2015) http://blog.foodnetwork.com/healthyeats/2012/01/25/in-your-kitchen-counter-top-safety/
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