UAH nursing professor explains the dangers of foodborne illnesses in summer months

E. Coli illustration

Meat sizzling on the grill, tangy salads and exotic fresh fruits are all tastes of summer — so is food poisoning.

Dr. Louise O’Keefe, Assistant Professor of Nursing at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) College of Nursing said according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), "foodborne illnesses peak during the summer months because of two reasons: bacteria multiplies faster in warmer temperatures, and preparing food outside in warmer temperatures creates problems with food safety."

She said when preparing food, hands should be washed thoroughly for at least 20 seconds in warm soapy water before and after handling food. "When eating outside, keep perishable food like meats, pasta or potato salad refrigerated or in an insulated cooler packed with several inches of ice, ice packs, or containers of frozen water," said O’Keefe, who also serves as Director of the UAH Faculty and Staff Clinic. "It is better to keep food and beverages in separate coolers. This is to avoid cross contamination. Place the cooler away from direct sunlight, preferably choosing a shady spot," she added.

Common symptoms of a foodborne illness include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Upset stomach
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever

O’Keefe said anyone can develop a foodborne illness but for some people it can be life threatening. Individuals at risk of foodborne illnesses include pregnant women, young children, older adults and people with immune systems weakened from medical conditions, such as diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, organ transplants, HIV/AIDS, or from receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

"Individuals can get sick hours to days after ingesting contaminated drinks or food," said O’Keefe. "Most people will recover in a few days. If you experience symptoms such as diarrhea or vomiting, drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration," she added.

In addition, O’Keefe advises seeing a doctor or healthcare provider for severe symptoms, including high fever (above 101), blood in the stool, frequent vomiting, dehydration (decrease in urination, dry mouth and throat), feeling dizzy and diarrhea (three or more days).

Some foods, said O’Keefe, have been in the news lately as being unsafe to eat. "Eggs are one of nature’s most nutritious and economical foods," she said. "But the inside of eggs that appear normal can contain a germ called Salmonella that can make you sick, especially if you eat them raw or lightly cooked.

"Eggs are safe when you cook and handle them properly. To decrease your chances of getting Salmonella keep eggs refrigerated at 40°F (4°C) or colder at all times," O’Keefe said. "Only buy eggs from stores and suppliers that keep them refrigerated. Hands should be thoroughly washed before and after handling uncooked eggs. Cook them until both the yolk and white are firm. Egg dishes should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C) or hotter."

O’Keefe said a common alternative to eggs in summer salads is tofu. "Looking up vegan recipes for salads and or/baking will provide you with alternative choices to eggs."

For more information on food safety, please visit these websites:, and


Dr. Louise O'Keefe
Director, Fsc / Nurse Practitioner