Food poisoning is a major health issue during the holidays. Here's how you and your patients can try to avoid it.

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Stephanie Cornwell
Published December 15, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Holiday dinners can result in food poisoning due to undercooked or improperly stored foods.

  • Patients should use extra caution with certain foods, like eggnog and meats. 

  • Patients should also be encouraged to eat in moderation and make healthy choices.

End-of-year holidays are a time of revelry, resolutions, and—at times, foodborne illness. Celebrations, including copious food and desserts, can often end in food poisoning or other health troubles. 

For this reason, it’s important that you encourage your patients to take extra care during the holidays. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises people to prepare, store, and cook food properly, especially when families come together to cook and enjoy holiday meals. It’s also crucial that patients with health issues make smart decisions about what and how much they’re eating.[] 

Food poisoning is a not-so-cheery reality, says Tae Keun Park, MD, director of Emergency Medicine at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, NJ. Dr. Park explains that there are a few traditional holiday foods that often lead to sickness: “Foodborne illnesses [can come from] undercooked foods, use of raw eggs for certain dishes (such as eggnog, which may be made without pasteurized eggs), and turkey, which needs to be thawed appropriately,” he says.

Holiday or end-of-year food poisoning is such a common issue that clinical literature has cited it numerous times. 

One clinical journal reported an outbreak of acute norovirus gastroenteritis over a Christmas dinner, after which 22 people got sick. The culprit? Soup and a lettuce salad.[] 

Another report in European Surveillance found an increase in gastrointestinal diseases, primarily acute gastroenteritis and vomiting, during France's end-of-year (specifically post-Christmas) holiday period. The journal found that traditional foods eaten during the holidays, like oysters, were linked to the increase in sickness.[] 

In the US, popular holiday foods include meats like turkey, which the FDA says needs to be fully cooked to be safe (the temperature should reach 165 Fahrenheit). More so, all foods that need to be cooked (eggs, meat, poultry, and seafood) should be kept separate from those that aren’t cooked.[] 

Eggnog is also a popular festive drink but can go awry quickly. Food Safety News says that patients should be reminded that alcohol doesn’t kill salmonella that the eggs may carry. Patients should make sure any store-bought eggnog uses pasteurized milk, which can kill bacteria. When making the drink at home, it’s important to make sure the mixture is cooked to 160 Fahrenheit. The mix must then be chilled before adding other ingredients (like cinnamon or other toppings).[]  

According to Mitzi D Baum, MS, chief executive officer at Stop Foodborne Illness, certain demographics can be at extra risk for food poisoning. “[Food poisoning] disproportionately impacts children under five years of age, adults over the age of 65, pregnant women, and those with underlying health conditions,” Baum says. She says the main cause of food poisoning is food left out on the countertops for too long. 

Patients with vomiting, diarrhea, and flu-like symptoms could have eaten contaminated foods—and symptoms can appear hours to days after consuming foods or drinks. Baum says patients should keep an inventory of foods eaten over the 72 hours prior to sickness.[]

It’s also important that MDs take food poisoning seriously, she stresses. “There are too many instances in which patients' fears [of poisoning] were dismissed, and it ended up costing them or a loved one their lives. Foodborne illness is preventable and treatable if managed appropriately by a medical professional,” Baum says. 

Baum urges healthcare providers to take a stool sample when in doubt and to determine exact pathogens. 

Beyond food poisoning, Dr. Park adds that patients with food allergies need to be vigilant about the possibility of cross-contamination (take shellfish, for example) that can occur during food preparation—whether celebrating at home or a restaurant. 

Over the holidays, Dr. Park says MDs should also be prepared to see an influx of patients reporting “complications from diabetes or hypertension [who are] not sticking to their dietary restrictions. They may be eating too many sugars, salty foods, imbibing more alcohol, or fatty foods,” he says. The issues will range from indigestion and gastritis to blood sugar issues. 

Blanca Garcia, a registered dietitian nutritionist, says patients should aim for easily attainable healthy goals: Add more veggies, salads, and fruits to their holiday platters and dishes. “MDs can help encourage patients to enjoy their traditional holiday foods in moderation but with increased vegetable intake to balance out high carbohydrates, fats, and sugary foods,” Garcia says.

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