At some time or another all of us will have a bout of food poisoning. For most of us we will suffer for a few days at home without recourse to treatment and then we will recover completely, however sometimes food poisoning can be extremely debilitating and in some cases it can be fatal.
What Is Food Poisoning?
Food poisoning is an illness that leads to sickness and diarrhoea. It is caused by eating contaminated food - food that has been contaminated by bacteria such as salmonella or Escherichia coli (E. coli), or contaminated by a virus, such as the norovirus.
The Symptoms of Food Poisoning
You will see the symptoms of food poisoning within 1 - 3 days of eating contaminated food, although you can have the onset of symptoms as quickly as a few hours depending on the bacteria involved. Such symptoms include:
- Vomiting that lasts a day or so
- Diarrhoea that lasts a few days
- An upset tummy for a week or so
Other symptoms to watch out for:
- Stomach cramps, stomach pain and other muscle pain
- Loss of appetite
- A high temperature
What Are the Causes of Food Poisoning?
Food can become contaminated with bacteria at any stage of its production, processing or cooking. Food that has not been cooked properly or stored properly is particularly at risk, as is food that has been handled by someone who is ill with diarrhoea and vomiting. Another source of contamination is when food is cross contaminated by another food. Cross contamination can occur when bacteria are spread between food, surfaces and equipment. If you prepare raw meat on a surface you then use to chop salad or fruit, you may cross contaminate. It's important that surfaces are very clean before use.
Cross-contamination may also occur if you store your raw meat above ready-to-eat meals or dairy in your fridge. Juices can drip from the meat onto other foods.
Common Types of Bacteria Include:
Campylobacter which is found in raw and undercooked meat but also in unpasteurised milk and untreated water.
Salmonella bacteria are found in raw meat and poultry and untreated water and can be passed via dairy products, including eggs and unpasteurised milk.
Listeria bacteria can be found in chilled, ready-to-eat foods including: pre-packed sandwiches, pâté, soft cheeses and smoked salmon. The incubation period for food poisoning that has been caused by listeria can vary from two days to three months, so make sure you eat these foods within their 'use by' dates.
Escherichia coli (E. coli) are found in the digestive systems of many animals, including humans. E. coli food poisoning occurs after eating undercooked beef – especially mince and burgers etc.
Norovirus is the most common gastrointestinal illness and is easily spread from person to person, usually via contaminated food or water. However, raw shellfish, particularly oysters, are also a source of viral contamination.
When to Seek Medical Advice for Your Food Poisoning
In most instances you will not need to seek medical treatment for food poisoning. However, you should seek medical advice for the following signs or symptoms:
- Persistent vomiting that lasts more than two days
- Persistent diarrhoea that last 3 days
- If you cannot keep liquid down
- If you have blood in your vomit or stools
- If you have seizures, double vision or you become confused
- If you have slurred speech
- If you are pregnant
- You have a baby with food poisoning
- You have a serious illness
Generally if you are suffering with food poisoning you should rest and drink plenty of fluids until you feel better. Initially you should eat foods that are easily digested such as toast, clear soup, bananas and rice. Avoid cigarettes, alcohol and spicy foods.
If you are dehydrated your chemist can recommend oral rehydration salts that will help to replace salt, glucose and other important minerals.
The Best Ways to Prevent Food Poisoning
- Wash your hands thoroughly especially before and after handling food or if you have touched animals or the bin, blown your nose or used the toilet.
- Wash your dishcloths and tea towels regularly too. They harbour bacteria.
- Keep your worktops clean. Hot soapy water is fine. It is not necessary to use antibacterial sprays or chemical sprays.
- If you have the facility, use separate chopping boards for different food items. Keep one just for raw meat and then another for salads and vegetables and one for dairy etc.
- Store meat on the bottom shelf of your fridge so that it cannot drip on anything else. Cover it or wrap it and keep it separate form salads, fruit and breads.
- Cook food thoroughly especially burgers and mince etc.
- Keep your fridge properly chilled and below 5°C
- Keep an eye on 'use-by' dates
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