Food poisoning

Food poisoning is a self-limiting condition where gastrointentis occurs from contaminated food or drink. It can cause abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhoea.

  1. Can induce diarrhoea and a fever
  2. Possible causes include bacteria, viruses and parasites
  3. Self-care measures crucial in aiding recovery

If you have food poisoning and would like to speak to a healthcare professional, you can do so by using our private online video consultation service. Book an appointment to get advice from our doctor at a time that suits you.

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What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning is typically a self-limiting illness that is caused by consuming contaminated food or drink. It causes abdominal pain, diarrhoea and vomiting, and it usually lasts for two to three days. Food poisoning most commonly occurs as a consequence of bacteria, a virus or a parasite, due to improper handling, storage or preparation of food or drinks.

The Food Standard Agency has reported that there are around 500,000 cases of food poisoning each year and a further 10 million cases are not clinically diagnosed. Of the 500,000 diagnosed cases, Campylobacter, Clostridium perfringens and the Norovirus are the most prevalent causes. In the US, it is thought that every single person gets food poisoning once every three to four years. Worldwide, the most prevalent causes of food poisoning are Shigella, Salmonella, and Campylobacter. 

What causes food poisoning?

Food poisoning is more likely to be caused by viruses than bacteria or parasites. In many cases, the symptoms of food poisoning can be attributed to the toxins produced by the organism. Diarrhoea and vomiting within the first 12 hours of toxins are a tell-tale sign of food poisoning. Cooked meats, reheated dishes and cream products are some of the food types that can lead to the creation of bacteria. When someone consumes contaminated water, poor sanitation is usually the cause (due to faeces from either animals or humans getting into the water supply - a common issue in many developing countries).

What complications can food poisoning lead to?

If someone experiences severe dehydration because of food poisoning, it may be necessary to be admitted to hospital. This is also the case if someone is completely unable to keep fluids down without being sick. 

Complications from food poisoning are very unlikely in the UK, but are more likely to occur in people whose immune systems are compromised, or older people. The most common complication is dehydration. This happens when salts and water are continuously lost through vomiting and diarrhoea. It becomes a serious complication when blood pressure drops due to dehydration, which can damage vital organs. Other rare complications include infection spreading to other parts of the body, reactive complications where the joints, eyes or skin become inflamed, and Haemolytic uraemic syndrome, which is caused by a very rare type of E. coli, and can cause kidney failure.

How can I prevent food poisoning?

You can prevent food poisoning by keeping work surfaces and kitchen utensils clean, cooking food thoroughly to kill bacteria, and chilling it properly by allowing it to cool before refrigerating. You can stop the potential spread of food poisoning by washing hands thoroughly, avoiding work for 48 hours and not sharing any towels.

If you have symptoms of food poisoning or are concerned about prolonged symptoms, you should contact a healthcare professional. Our online private video consultation service enables you to speak to a doctor about how to manage your symptoms and decide whether you need any further treatment.

Page last reviewed:  15/06/2020
Diagnosis and treatment

How is food poisoning diagnosed?

In most cases, food poisoning can be self-diagnosed as the symptoms are very clear. Characteristic symptoms include diarrhoea or watery stools within the first six to 24 hours, nausea and vomiting. It is also an indication that the body has been deprived of water if a fever develops, which is why staying hydrated is so vital during a bout of food poisoning.

Will I need tests?

In almost all cases, you will not need tests to diagnose food poisoning. However, there are some circumstances where it may be necessary for a doctor to examine a stool sample. For example, if diarrhoea has not settled after a week, or if you have recently been abroad and become unwell, a doctor may want to rule out certain diagnoses.

What will a doctor normally advise?

For the most part, a doctor will simply encourage intake of lots of fluids to keep the body hydrated. It can help to drink fruit juices and soups if the body cannot handle solids for the duration of the illness. It can also help to take oral rehydration salt solution, particularly if you are frail or older. Once your appetite has returned, it is important to consume food in gradual amounts when returning to a normal level. Small meals that don’t consist of fatty and spicy foods are preferable. 

What treatments are there for food poisoning?

Treating food poisoning involves allowing the immune system to clear the infection, whilst rehydrating the body. This can be done by taking on lots of fluids, but at a steady pace, in order not to induce further vomiting. Previously, doctors would advise eating nothing at all, however it is now considered beneficial to try and eat small meals when you feel up to it. It is normal to go a couple of days without eating. 

Antidiarrheal medications are not usually necessary in cases of food poisoning. Paracetamol or ibuprofen can be taken to help with a high temperature and headache.

Page last reviewed:  15/06/2020
Questions and Answers

How is food poisoning treated?

Food poisoning is not usually treated with any specific medications, as the illness is self-limiting. Although the symptoms are sudden and uncomfortable, they will usually pass in a few days. It is important to stay hydrated, and try to eat small meals (when you are ready to do so). Ibuprofen and paracetamol can help to alleviate headaches and fever that may accompany food poisoning.

What treatments are there?

Recommended treatment for food poisoning is managing the condition at home. It’s advisable to drink lots of water, but in small amounts, and eat foods that are easy on the stomach, such as bananas, rice and plain toast.

Can I consult a doctor about food poisoning online?

Yes, you can consult one of our UK doctors via our private online video consultation service. Our doctors are available to speak to at a suitable time for you. They can provide advice about measures you can take to manage your food poisoning, and let you know if you need to go to hospital.

Page last reviewed:  15/06/2020

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