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Foodborne illness: Everything you need to know about the most common types

Monica Beyer is a mom of four and has been writing professionally since 2000, when her first book, Baby Talk, was published. Her main area of interest is attachment parenting and all that goes with it, including breastfeeding, co-sleepin...

Get the 411 on the most prevalent foodborne illnesses

Foodborne illness is an unfortunate reality for millions of Americans each year. Here's what you need to know about their causes, their symptoms and what you can do to boost your chances of staying healthy.

Nobody wants to experience foodborne illness (also known as food poisoning), but chances are, you or someone you know has been sickened by consumed food. It is also an unhappy yet prevalent news topic, especially when a large corporation bears the burden of sharing the news that its customers are suffering from an illness they picked up at its business.

More: 7 Tips for buying safer food in a recall-mad world

Here's what you need to know about the most common types of foodborne illnesses, what causes them and how you can lower your risk of contracting any of these awful germs.

Norovirus

Norovirus is the virus responsible for most cases of gastroenteritis in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control, norovirus causes 19 million to 21 million illnesses each year and contributes to 56,000 to 71,000 hospitalizations and 570 to 800 deaths.

  • How it gets into your food: Norovirus is transmitted several ways, including direct contact with an infected person, but food can also become contaminated by an infected person during preparation or serving. Also, food can become contaminated at its source, such as produce grown near feed lots.
  • Symptoms: Norovirus causes gastrointestinal symptoms — vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhea. It can also cause fever, headaches and body aches.
  • Best practices: You can reduce your chances of becoming infected by washing your hands thoroughly and often, especially after using the bathroom and before eating a meal. You should also carefully wash fruits and vegetables before preparing and consuming them, and you should also avoid preparing or handling food when you're sick.

E. coli

E. coli, short for Escherichia coli, is a bacteria that is normally present in the intestines of people and animals. Most E. coli is harmless, but a few strains are pathogenic and can cause illnesses.

  • How it gets into your food: Meat and poultry can come into contact with E. coli during slaughter by coming into contact with intestinal material. Also, fresh fruits and vegetables can be contaminated by being grown or irrigated near human or animal waste.
  • Symptoms: Symptoms of infection include gastrointestinal distress, diarrhea (sometimes bloody) and vomiting, and sometimes a mild fever is present.
  • Best practices: Thorough and frequent handwashing can help prevent illness, especially if you've come into contact with animals or their environments and before settling down for a meal. It's also vital to cook meats thoroughly — the CDC recommends heating your meats to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees F/70 degrees C. Also, avoid unpasteurized dairy products and juice (pasteurization will kill the bacteria).

More: How long do eggs stay good in the refrigerator?

Salmonella

Salmonella, a bacteria, causes about 1 million foodborne illnesses in the U.S., and in some, the infection can be deadly.

  • How it gets into your food: It's usually transmitted to humans who eat or drink foods that have been contaminated with small amounts of animal feces. We usually associate poultry with salmonella, but just about any food, including fruits and vegetables, can be contaminated. Cross-contamination can occur in the kitchen as well if drippings from raw foods make their way onto other items you're preparing.
  • Symptoms: Salmonella can cause diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after exposure to the pathogen.
  • Best practices: Cook eggs, poultry and other meats thoroughly, and don't consume raw or unpasteurized milk. Clean hands, work surfaces and kitchen utensils immediately after preparing raw meat. Wash hands after coming into contact with reptiles and before preparing, serving or eating meals.

Listeria

Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterial infection, causes a serious illness that typically affects newborns, the elderly, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems, but it can occasionally affect people without those risk factors.

  • How it gets into your food: Listeria monocytogenes is found in soil and water, and it can be harmlessly carried by animals who, in turn, can contaminate their milk and meat. It is usually found in undercooked meat, raw or unpasteurized dairy products and in certain soft cheeses as well as some processed meats and smoked seafood.
  • Symptoms: Infection with listeria monocytogenes usually causes body aches, fever and diarrhea, but it can also cause confusion, stiff neck, loss of balance and convulsions. Pregnant women can experience stillbirth or miscarriage.
  • Best practices: Thoroughly wash fresh produce, thoroughly cook all meat, and avoid common sources of listeria, such as unpasteurized dairy products.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a serious, highly contagious liver infection. While it can be transmitted from an infected person directly to an other person, it can also find its way into food.

  • How it gets into your food: Hepatitis A is transmitted via the fecal-oral route — this means you become infected after accidentally ingesting the feces of an infected person. In the food industry, it can be transmitted as easily as a food preparation worker not washing their hands. Food can also be contaminated at any stage of production — growing, picking, processing, storing or transporting.
  • Symptoms: Some people infected with hepatitis A do not have any symptoms at all. If symptoms are present, they can include fever, joint pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, vomiting, clay-colored stools, jaundice or darkened urine.
  • Best practices: The CDC recommends vaccination against hepatitis A in addition to frequent handwashing, which can help prevent its spread.

More: How to organize your fridge to keep food fresh longer (INFOGRAPHIC)

Campylobacter

Campylobacter is a bacteria and a common cause of diarrheal illness in the U.S.

  • How it gets into your food: Campylobacter is an infection found in chicken flocks that show no signs of illness, and the infection can be transferred to the meat if it comes into contact with intestines during slaughter.
  • Symptoms: The main symptom of this type of infection is diarrhea, which may be bloody.
  • Best practices: Cook all poultry products thoroughly to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees F. Don't consume undercooked poultry at a restaurant, and wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw chicken. Also, make sure you don't cross-contaminate surfaces or other materials in your kitchen by washing thoroughly with soap and water.

Trichinosis

Trichinosis is caused by a parasitic worm present in undercooked food, but fortunately incidence in the U.S. is rare.

  • How it gets into your food: The parasite can be present in several types of animals, such as bears, pigs, wild felines, foxes, dogs, wolves, horses, seals and walruses.
  • Symptoms: Trichinosis usually presents with abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and fatigue. It can progress to joint pain, swelling of the face and eyes, headaches, chills or itchy skin.
  • Best practices: Cook your meat thoroughly to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F for ground meat, 165 degrees F for poultry and 145 degrees F for all other meats.
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