After the holidays, our refrigerators and freezers are loaded with leftovers. As much as we all want to avoid food waste, even more important is avoiding food borne illness. Perhaps your family is already struck down with a case of norovirus following your New Year’s Eve party, and you’re left wondering what went wrong. Dr. Jill Foster, Pediatric Infectious Disease Physician at M Physicians, has the answers you’re looking for and tips to keep your family healthy in the new year.

What is Food Borne Illness?

Food borne illness comes from foods that are not prepared or stored well and become contaminated with bacteria or viruses. Bacteria develops on foods like eggs or undercooked poultry when left at room temperature for too long or not cooked thoroughly. Viruses spread when the person cooking doesn’t wash their hands before handling food, thus spreading the virus to everyone who eats it.

Food borne illness can result in either vomiting or diarrhea.

“For most people, it’s just annoying,” Dr. Foster says. “However, some people can become pretty sick, especially older people, because of their immune systems not being as adaptable, infants, and anyone with chronic illnesses. In those cases, it may be something that’s actually life threatening.”

Keep Your Family Healthy

Dr. Foster’s first piece of advice for avoiding food borne illness is to be vigilant about hygiene in the kitchen.

“If people come into your kitchen, be able to say, ‘Hey, could you wash your hands before touching the food?’” she advises. “There’s a reason restaurants have signs up saying employees must wash their hands.”

The next important safety measure is ensuring food doesn’t sit out too long.

“If your food is going to be at room temperature for more than two hours, I’d start worrying about it,” Dr. Foster elaborates.

Let’s Talk Leftovers

Everyone loves having leftovers after the holidays that let us take a break from cooking, but Dr. Foster warns that leftovers can be a source of food borne illness, even if you didn’t get sick from the dish when you initially ate it.

“Those foods sat around on the table before you ate, everybody ate their dinner, and maybe they didn’t get put in the refrigerator right away. They have lots of time to grow things, and then you just heat them up,” she explains. “You’re not cooking them again, just heating them up a little bit. So leftovers can be a problem because the more time the food is at room temperature, the more bacteria you’re going to have in it.”

If that leftover potato salad in your refrigerator was out for more than two hours the day it was initially served, Dr. Foster advises tossing it. When you’re cooking for your family and know you’ll have some left over, put away extras even before serving it. You can always go back to the fridge for more if you need it!

Your Family is Sick. Now What?

If your family ends up sick from food borne illness, don’t despair. In the majority of people, the illness can be managed at home and cleared up in a couple of days.

“The basics of it is that the danger is in the dehydration,” Dr. Foster says. “Make sure to keep up on your fluids.”

If you or your child are vomiting, the safest way to get fluids is by taking small, frequent sips as opposed to downing a whole glass at once. Despite common misperceptions that Gatorade is best when we’re sick, Dr. Foster says the best fluid is plain old water. The sugar in sports drinks could actually worsen stomach problems. While not necessary, Dr. Foster says it is typically safe to take an over the counter medication like immodium to manage symptoms.

If someone has become severely dehydrated, it’s time to go to the emergency room.

“The thing to look at is the mucus membranes,” Dr. Foster says. “Do you still have saliva? For babies and young children, can they still make tears? Are they making wet diapers? If not, the organs aren’t hydrated enough, and it’s time to go in for an IV.”