Food Poisoning: Everything You Need to Know

Dr. Nikhil Eric Saldanha

February 23, 2022

Food poisoning is a foodborne illness caused by consuming contaminated food. The food experiences contamination by infectious organisms such as bacteria, viruses, parasites or other toxins. Food contamination can occur at any point during preparation or storage; therefore, it is imperative to follow sanitary measures to avoid contamination.

Sometimes when the food is not properly cooked, it can lead to infections. This occurrence is most common in the case of seafood and salads.

Do You Have Food Poisoning?

You may experience food poisoning symptoms within a few hours or days after consuming contaminated food. Food poisoning symptoms can vary depending on the source of contamination, but some of the common food poisoning symptoms are:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Abdominal pain or cramps
  • Fever

If these symptoms do not go away or get better after a few days and get severe, you should seek medical attention and visit a doctor.

What Causes Food Poisoning?

There are 2 types of food poisoning – intoxication (toxins of a bacteria/virus/fungi) infect a person and infection (a bacteria or virus starts growing within the intestine)

While bateria first starts more rapidly, ends quickly too (within 12-24 hours) and does not need to be treated with antibiotics. The virus food poisoning needs to be identified for the presence of bacterial infection. Some symptoms indicate bacterial infection. If it’s bacterial – the treatment is antibiotics.

Food contamination can happen at any point of production, i.e., during harvesting, processing, storing, shipping or preparing. In addition, many bacteria, viruses, and parasites can cause food poisoning. Therefore, you need to store, handle and cook food very carefully at appropriate temperatures to avoid the growth and spread of these bacteria.

Bacterial Food Poisoning

1. Salmonella

Salmonella is a bacterium that affects the gastrointestinal tract, and you experience flu-like symptoms. These symptoms can last for 2-5 days. This bacterium sometimes spreads through food handlers with unhygienic work conditions and low sanitation.

2. Campylobacter

This bacterium also causes gastric issues, and these symptoms can appear in 2-5 days and last for up to 10 days. This bacterium is usually in shellfish and other seafood.

3. Listeria

Listeria is a bacterium that can give flu-like symptoms like headaches, fever, and stiff neck. These symptoms can last for several days or weeks. This bacterium can spread through raw meats, uncooked poultry, and unpasteurised milk products.

4. E. Coli

E. Coli is a bacterium that can cause abdominal pain, cramps, diarrhoea, vomiting. Sadly, these symptoms can last for several weeks. They spread via uncooked meat, raw fruits or vegetables, and unhygienic storage conditions.

5. Staphylococcus

This bacterium is spread through meats and salads and can cause flu-like symptoms like coughing and sneezing.

6. Vibrio Vulnificus

This bacterium spreads through raw oysters, uncooked clams or contaminated seawater. The effect is severe gastro issues like diarrhoea, vomiting, nausea, etc. These symptoms can last for up to 7-10 days.

Viral Food Poisoning

1. Rotavirus

Rotavirus or Norovirus can cause severe gastrointestinal and flu-like symptoms. In addition, it can result in severe dehydration. It usually begins within 24-48 hours of exposure to the pathogen and can last for up to a week.

Fresh produce, raw uncooked meat, poultry and eggs, dairy (non-pasteurised), seafood, ready to eat food can carry specific pathogens and viruses. These can cause food poisoning. In addition, certain parasites can enter your body via leafy vegetables, live inside the body, and cause ailments.

Food Poisoning: High-Risk Groups

Food poisoning can affect anyone. However, pregnant women, the elderly, toddlers, people with compromised immune systems are at a greater risk of food poisoning and developing severe complications.

But some people have a better immune system and won’t show severe symptoms. They can get better within a few weeks. 

If you’re pregnant, listeria can cause severe complications and even lead to a miscarriage. So pregnant women need to have proper food and avoid processed food. In addition, they should get tested if they experience any symptoms like flu, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Food Poisoning in Toddlers 

Nausea and vomiting are two widespread symptoms of food poisoning in toddlers. These symptoms usually last only a day, sometimes longer and are generally followed by diarrhoea. In some cases, diarrhoea is the only sign, without having nausea and vomiting first.

If a toddler has watery or loose stools for at least three days, it is usually diarrhoea. In severe diarrhoea and some infections, blood and mucus can also be present in the watery stool. Diarrhoea should only last for a couple of days, sometimes a week. Slightly loose stools in toddlers can persist for weeks before they return to the regular stool patterns.

Abdominal pain and cramps are also some indications of food poisoning. In addition, high fever and pain in the upper and lower limbs, headache, etc., are also prevalent.

If any of these symptoms last for more than a week or get severe, you should consult a specialist and take proper medication, take care of their diet and take plenty of fluids. 

Preventing Your Child’s Food Poisoning

If your toddler has got food poisoning, you will want them to rest as much as possible. During food poisoning, dehydration is prevalent. Therefore, you should make sure that your child is drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day to help improve and prevent dehydration. Administer over-the-counter electrolyte solutions like ORS in such cases. Make them take small sips throughout the day. Your doctor will let you know how much fluids you need to give your child based on your toddler weight and age.

Once the symptoms improve and your child feels better, ensure a proper solid diet to regain the lost energy. Avoid fatty foods. Going back to the regular diet as soon as possible will make sure that your toddler has a speedy recovery and maintains good health. 

You should also include some prebiotics like yoghurt, curd, etc., to increase the growth of the good gut bacteria. They ensure good intestinal health and improve food absorption in the intestines.

Food Poisoning During Pregnancy

During pregnancy, a nutrition-rich diet and preferably home-cooked meals are essential. This precaution will help to eliminate unnecessary complications and chances of catching infections. However, it is possible to contract food poisoning due to poorly stored food, contaminated water, etc. 

Some of the common symptoms of food poisoning are headache, fever, bloody stool, abdominal pain, cramps, and dehydration. While the body experiences constant changes during pregnancy, it can be challenging to differentiate between the symptoms such as nausea and vomiting. 

If these symptoms last longer than expected or occur at a higher frequency. they can be because of some viral, bacterial or parasitic infection. You must consult a doctor immediately as it can pose a risk for the unborn child. 

Treatment of Food Poisoning During Pregnancy

If you are experiencing severe vomiting and diarrhoea, it can cause extreme dehydration. Therefore, it is vital to take plenty of fluids and electrolytes during this time to avoid further complications and keep hydrated. 

You should consult a doctor, take proper medication for the symptoms, and take a light and easy-to-digest diet. Then, as soon as you feel the symptoms are improving, you can go back to your regular diet to ensure a speedy recovery. 

Food Poisoning: Common Treatments

Most people do not need any medical attention for their food poisoning symptoms as they are not severe and do not last that long. However, if you belong to the high-risk group such as pregnant women, elderly, toddlers etc., it can cause severe complications.

Suppose your child has diarrhoea that lasts for more than a few days or worsens with time. In that case, it is essential to contact your paediatrician and get them on medication.

Keeping the body hydrated and taking antibiotics to kill the infection is essential. You can also get medication to reduce symptoms like vomiting and nausea.

Prevention of Food Poisoning

It is crucial to handle the food very cautiously to avoid contamination. Many tips can help prevent food poisoning.

1. Hand Wash

Whenever you enter the kitchen, wash your hands thoroughly with warm water to get rid of the germs and any pathogens that can contaminate the food. Please remember this while handling raw meat, preparing food, and cutting and chopping vegetables.

2. Raw Meat Storage

Bacterial growth is most rapid on raw meat; therefore, you should take proper care while storing raw meat. First, it should be separated from the rest of the foods to avoid cross-contamination. Then, store them in airtight containers. Once you thaw your frozen meat, use it immediately. Please do not put it back in the freezer again for future use.

3. Cooking and Storing Techniques

Raw food must be cooked thoroughly and at the proper temperature. While storing cooked food leftovers, you should let it cool down properly, keep it in an airtight container, and separate the different foods to avoid cross-contamination.

4. Diet Tips

For someone suffering from food poisoning, it is essential to ensure proper nutrition and eat healthy food.

Foods to Avoid

  • Drinks with caffeine, such as tea, coffee and soft drinks
  • High-fat foods such as pizza, fries, fast food
  • Foods that contain high sugar
  • Milk and milk products have lactose. They can be pretty challenging to digest as your body is recovering from the gastric issues caused by food poisoning.

Foods to Eat

  • Stay hydrated! It is imperative to take plenty of fluids and electrolytes to help the body recover. The body can get severely dehydrated during this time.
  • Apple cider vinegar can have specific antibacterial properties, making for an effective home remedy for food poisoning.
  • Bananas are rich in potassium, and dietary fibre is easy to digest and nutritive and can help in a quick recovery.
  • Cumin seeds can be pretty helpful to relieve stomach pains, inflammation and bowel-related issues during food poisoning.

The Bottom Line

Please ensure proper storage, handling and processing of food to avoid food contamination. Food poisoning can cause severe gastrointestinal issues and uneasiness. It can be particularly harmful to pregnant females, elderly groups, toddlers and people with a weak immune system. However, it can be managed with some home remedies and taking medication.

About the Author

Dr. Nikhil did Medicine (MBBS) at St. John’s Medical College and then decided to step away to do a Master’s in Health Psychology at the University of Stirling. On the way to that, he has worked with an NGO, Enfold, on teaching sexual health education in schools and colleges to create a healthy foundation for better sexual health in the nation. He has also worked as a medical content editor with Vinformax. He has now been working with HealthifyMe to bring in a renewed user-centric perspective concerning the users' medical conditions and to support the company with more effective digital tools and devices. He hopes to help improve the healthcare scenario in India.

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