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UAH professor explains dangers of foodborne illnesses during peak season and how to avoid them

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- An E. Coli outbreak tied to romaine lettuce in April and a salmonella outbreak linked to pre-cut melon in June. Foodborne illnesses peak during summer months according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And while a 24-hour stomach bug can be inconvenient -- the consequences can be much worse.

"The danger is dehydration," says Dr. Louise O'Keefe, Assistant Professor of Nursing and Director of Faculty & Staff Clinic at the University of Alabama in Huntsville

Not just from the heat or hot sun, but from the foods you enjoy in the summer.

"You can get sick within a few hours of eating something contaminated to almost a week."

O'Keefe is reminding people that foodborne illnesses are at their worst in the summer. "The most important thing though is the temperature."

No one wants to get sick after enjoying a picnic in the great outdoors. "Keep the food in coolers, make sure that you separate the food," O'Keefe advises. That keeps the bacterial growth at bay. She also suggests keeping food and drinks in different coolers.

The same applies at home. "Do not put raw meat thawing next to cooked meat or vegetables," O'Keefe cautions. She says they are the most common food items to be contaminated.

While in your kitchen, O'Keefe recommends a few simple things to keep yourself healthy and your food fresh. On your refrigerator, set the temperature to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, though you should check with the manufacturer to make sure you have the best temperature for that fridge.

When handling raw meats, consider using a glove to prevent cross-contamination. Wash your hands thoroughly. The recommended time is 20 seconds. "If you're outside, carry a disinfectant with you," O'Keefe recommends.

It's something to take seriously especially with young kids, older adults and those with weak immune systems.

"If the diarrhea continues for more than three days and/or is accompanied by a fever of 100 degrees, 101, you need to see your healthcare provider."

The summer is a time to relax and enjoy your friends and family, so take precautions to protect yourself and them. O'Keefe recommends staying aware and up to date on any food product contamination from credited agencies like the Center for Disease Control and USDA.