Food poisoning

The majority of cases of food poisoning are mild, but they can be unpleasant and uncomfortable, result in absences from education or the workplace and place a significant demand on healthcare services. Occasionally cases can lead to serious or long-term conditions. However, most people will get better without the need for treatment.

Foodborne diseases can originate from a wide variety of different foods and can be caused by many different pathogenic organisms (e.g. bacteria or viruses) that have contaminated food at some part of the food chain, between farm and fork. Foods that are most frequently associated with foodborne illness include meat, fish and poultry. Illnesses can arise from these foods whether they are produced on a large or small scale, purchased from major retailers or local markets, or whether home-cooked or prepared and eaten outside the home.

Foods that are particularly vulnerable to contamination if they are not handled, stored or cooked properly include:

  • raw meat and poultry
  • 'ready to eat' foods such as cooked sliced meats, pate, soft cheeses and pre-packed sandwiches
  • dairy products, such as eggs and milk

The most common food borne disease pathogens are Campylobacter, Listeria Monocytogenes, E. coli O157 and Salmonella. Campylobacter causes the largest number of cases of food poisoning in the UK and the Food Standards Agency state that 60-80% of cases can be attributed to chicken.

What to do if you suspect you have food poisoning

Often, when people become ill with food poisoning they tend to blame the restaurant they most recently ate from, or the ready-cooked food bought earlier from a shop. However, food poisoning bacteria usually take some time to reproduce inside the human gut before they cause the symptoms of food poisoning. Some people are also more resistant than others, so it may be some time before there are enough bacteria to cause illness.

It is often the case that the affected food was eaten two or three days (or even up to 10 days) before the symptoms appeared. However, some food poisoning symptoms can appear more quickly. This is usually caused by the poison or toxin which some bacteria make. Higher levels of toxins will cause the stomach to react quickly by vomiting, to try and remove the poison (diarrhoea is very rare with this type). This can happen within a few hours of eating the affected food.

Most people with food poisoning will get better without the need for treatment. Additional information is available from the NHS. In the meantime, you can relieve the symptoms of food poisoning by:

  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • eating easily digested food, such as toast, until you feel better
  • resting

Occasionally, food poisoning can have more serious effects on a person's health, particularly if they are vulnerable to the effects of an infection. For example, being older than 65 or having a condition that weakens the immune system, such as HIV or cancer, can increase a person's chances of getting an illness and developing more serious symptoms.

If you suspect you have food poisoning it is recommended that you visit your General Practitioner immediately and request that a stool sample be submitted. Whilst this can be unpleasant it is essential for the purpose of identifying whether a food poisoning pathogen is to blame.