Sep. 11—Sure, COVID-19 has dominated health headlines for well over a year now, but that doesn’t mean other health hazards should be trivialized or ignored.

That is why, despite a resurgence of the deadly pandemic across most of the continental United States, health officials are still pushing forward with the annual Food Safety Education month, which takes place throughout September. The goal? To prevent food poisoning, or the eating of contaminated foods.

Food poisoning, said Shannon Linder, a clinical dietitian with Freeman Health System, “is definitely something that’s an afterthought for most people, depending on their health and wellness.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates there are roughly 48 million food poisoning cases each year, or roughly 1 in 6 Americans sickened by eating something they probably shouldn’t have eaten or food that wasn’t properly prepared beforehand.

The devil lies in the details. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of those 48 million annual cases, 128,000 Americans are hospitalized, with more than 3,000 dying of the poisoning. Germs swallowed can range from staph and salmonella to E. coli. Clostridium perfringens, a strain of bacteria associated with cooked foods left out at room temperature, was to blame for at least a million cases last year. It’s the second most common bacterial cause of food poisoning, with more outbreaks occurring in November and December, right around the upcoming holidays.

“Some people may think their symptoms are from another illness,” sometimes mistaken early on for the common cold or flu, Linder said, “and they just shrug it off … or maybe their symptoms aren’t as serious at first.”

Food poisoning symptoms can vary, of course. Some can appear as quickly as six hours after eating, while others might appear 36 to 48 hours after digestion or even four to five days.

The most common symptoms are often played up for cheap laughs by writers of Hollywood comedies, mostly nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. What those movies rarely show are the symptoms that can hospitalize a person, however — bloody diarrhea lasting for 3-plus days; nonstop vomiting over a 24-hour period; or a high fever of 102 degrees or more.

“We’ve had some patients here (in the hospital), for sure, with food poisoning,” Linder said.

And should those symptoms above occur, “we would recommend calling your doctor about these things,” she said.

Some food poisoning illnesses can cause long-term health problems, such as chronic arthritis, brain and nerve damage, and kidney failure.

Ways to avoid food poisoning when preparing food are pretty common and simple, Linder said. They include:

—Washing hands regularly by using warm, soapy water.

—Make sure all necessary foods such as meats, milk, cheese, yogurts and eggs are refrigerated.

—Avoid cross-contaminating by separating raw meats from ready-to-eat foods.

—Always make sure to check temperatures with a thermometer when cooking up various dishes using materials that can harbor germs and sicken a loved one.

While anyone, of any age, can suffer from food poisoning, Linder said, certain groups of people are more likely to get sick and to have a serious reaction to the invading germs than others. Those groups include adults who are 65 and older, in which nearly half of people who get poisoned from food end up hospitalized; children younger than 5, who are three times more likely to be hospitalized if they get salmonella infection; people with weakened immune systems, with those on dialysis 50 times more likely to get a listeria infection; and pregnant women, who are 10 times more likely to get a listeria infection.

All of this sounds like common sense — and it is, most of it habit-forming after a food poisoning incident from years before — but there’s a reason why thousands of people still get sick each year.

“You know, it’s not uncommon for people to go to cookout and not really pay attention to how long (foods) are left out, and nobody really wants to waste food so it’s shoved into a fridge … and made into a huge pot of chili … where it doesn’t cool evenly,” Linder said.

People need to learn to keep an eye out “on how foods are handled.”

Overall, she said, there’s an easy way to avoid making yourself or others sick — don’t leave foods out.

And there’s always sage advice to fall back on — “when in doubt, throw it out.”

Kevin McClintock is features editor for The Joplin Globe.