Extreme weather conditions, whether it’s a storm that knocks a tree branch across a power line or a category 3 hurricane, can cause all manner of havoc and danger. Not the least of these is a power failure that can last hours, sometimes days.
During a power outage, the chief health concern is the loss of refrigeration. Spoiled food can develop dangerous bacteria that can make you sick. Food that hasn’t been properly refrigerated can cause bacteria capable of multiplying in numbers sufficient to cause illness.
Here’s what you need to know about preventing foodborne illness if the power goes down for more than a couple hours.
WHEN IN DOUBT, THROW IT OUT
When it comes to suspected food spoilage, that’s the best food safety advice given by the CDC, the FDA, and other public health authorities. Even food that looks, smells and tastes normal may still contain enough harmful bacteria to make you sick.
A full freezer will keep food safe if the power goes down for 48 hours–and your refrigerator for up to 4 hours—if the door remains closed until the power is restored.
If the power was out for more than four hours, check the temperature reading inside your refrigerator after power is restored. If the temperature is warmer than 40 degrees, everything perishable should be thrown out. That includes meat, fish, poultry, dairy products (including anything made with those ingredients) and leftovers.
Check your freezer and discard any food that has completely thawed. Food that is still frozen or contains ice crystals can be safely cooked and consumed. However long the power was out, you should discard any food with an unusual color, odor or texture, or if the package is open or loose.
SIGNS OF FOODBORNE ILLNESS
The signs of foodborne illness can often look like other illnesses. If you or someone in your family has eaten contaminated food, watch for symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal pain. Occasionally these signs may be accompanied by fever, headache and body aches.
Symptoms typically arise within 24-72 hours of consuming the tainted food. Most people feel very sick for about a day or so and then begin to recover. Pregnant women, young children, seniors and those with underlying health conditions can develop severe problems after a bout of food poisoning, including kidney failure, chronic arthritis, nerve damage or even death.
Foodborne illness often improves on its own within a few days. If you suspect food poisoning:
- Stop eating until your symptoms pass.
- Get plenty of rest and try to sip liquids, such as a sports drink or water, to restore electrolyte balance and prevent dehydration. Drinking fluids too quickly can worsen the nausea and vomiting, so try to take small frequent sips over several hours.
- Be sure to urinate at regular intervals. If your urine is dark, or if you feel dizzy or lightheaded, you may be dehydrated.
- Avoid anti-diarrheal medications, which may inhibit the flushing of toxins. Because of potentially serious side effects, you should never give anti-diarrheal medications to infants or young children.
Call your doctor if any of the following conditions arise:
- Vomiting or diarrhea that persists for more than two days
- Bloody, black or tarry stools
- Fever of 101 F or higher
- Severe abdominal pain
Seek emergency medical care if your symptoms are severe, if you have underlying health problems, or if you suspect botulism poisoning. Botulism, a potentially fatal illness, is caused by botulin toxin, most often found in home-canned foods. Symptoms include headache, blurred vision, and muscle weakness. Untreated botulism can lead to paralysis or death and requires immediate medical attention.
“First Aid: Foodborne Illness.” Mayo Clinic, June 19, 2020. https://www.mayoclinic.org/first-aid/first-aid-food-borne-illness/basics/art-20056689
“Food and Water Safety During Power Outages and Floods.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration Food Facts. https://www.fda.gov/media/72124/download
“Food Poisoning.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.foodsafety.gov/food-poisoning
“Food Safety During Power Outage.” FoodSafety.gov. https://www.foodsafety.gov/food-safety-charts/food-safety-during-power-outage
“Keep Food Safe After a Disaster or Emergency.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/keep-food-safe-after-emergency.html