If you’ve ever suffered from food poisoning, you probably remember that absolutely awful feeling where you’d do almost anything to stop the stomach cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting. While we tend to blame the last thing we ate, it could have been something we ate several days ago.
Food poisoning is the common name for the range of illnesses triggered by consuming contaminated food or drink caused by pathogenic (bad) bacteria, viruses and parasites. It is sometimes also called a foodborne illness.
It is estimated that around 4.1 million Australians are affected by food poisoning each year. Typical cases clear up within 24 – 48 hours, but in very serious cases food poisoning can lead to organ failure, paralysis, neurological impairment, blindness, stillbirths and even death.
What are the symptoms of food poisoning?
The last meal you ate may indeed have made you sick, but it is also possible that the illness was due to a food eaten quite a long time before you became ill.
The symptoms of food poisoning may vary depending on the type of bacteria causing the illness, so consider all the foods eaten over the 3 days before the symptoms first appeared.
Symptoms can range from mild to very severe and can occur almost immediately after eating, or a number of hours or even a few days later. Typically symptoms last from 24 hours to five days.
When you get sick from food poisoning, you usually experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Headache or dizziness
- Extreme bloating
- Nausea and/or Vomiting
- Stomach cramps
- Wind/gas (may start with burping)
- Diarrhoea and/or Constipation
- Fever and/or chills
- Aches, pains or Inflamed sore joints
What causes food poisoning?
Food can become contaminated at any stage during its production, processing or cooking in some of the following ways:
- Not cooking food thoroughly (particularly chicken and meat)
- Not correctly storing food that needs to be chilled at below 5C
- Keeping cooked food unrefrigerated for a long period
- Eating food that has been touched by someone who is ill or has been in contact with someone with diarrhoea and vomiting
Which Bacteria are the Worst Culprits?
Listeria is widely found in the environment so most raw foods are likely to be contaminated. Listeria is easily killed by heat, although cooked foods can easily become re-contaminated through poor food handling after cooking.
This is one of the few pathogens that can grow in the refrigerator, so ready to eat food should never be stored in the fridge too long. Although it can grow in the fridge, it will do so only very slowly so make sure your refrigerator is keeping your food at or less than 5 °C and never eat packaged food after its use by date.
The symptoms are usually described as ‘flu-like’, although vomiting and discoloured urine can occur. The time from infection to symptoms can be anywhere between three days for milder cases and up to 80 days if it is more severe.
Symptoms in pregnant women may appear mild, but listeriosis can cause miscarriage, premature birth, or stillbirth. It is extremely important that pregnant women who have symptoms of listeriosis seek medical attention immediately.
For people with weakened immune systems, symptoms can progress to more serious forms of illness including septicaemia (blood infection), meningitis (infection and inflammation of membranes surrounding the brain) and even death.
Try to avoid foods which have a higher risk of Listeria contamination such as:
- Cold cooked ready-to-eat chicken or turkey (whole, portions, or diced)
- Packaged, sliced ready-to-eat meats, as well as cold meats from delicatessen counters and sandwich bars
- Pre-prepared or pre-packaged fruits, vegetables and salad greens, including salads from buffets and salad bars
- Chilled seafood such as raw oysters, sashimi and sushi, smoked ready-to-eat seafood and cooked ready-to-eat prawns
- Semi-soft and surface-ripened cheeses such as brie, camembert, ricotta, blue and feta
- Paté or meat spreads
- Soft serve ice cream and custards
- Unpasteurised dairy products
You can further reduce your risk of listeriosis by following these food safety tips:
- Avoid foods that are past their ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date
- Refrigerate leftovers promptly and use within 24 hours, or freeze
- Cook foods thoroughly
- Reheat food until it is steaming hot
Salmonella food poisoning (salmonellosis) is usually linked to consuming inadequately cooked meats or poultry, other foods contaminated by raw meats and poultry, as well as foods containing raw or under-cooked eggs, unpasteurised dairy products such as raw milk or cheeses.
But many other foods have been linked to outbreaks caused by Salmonella including mayonnaise (with raw eggs), fruits and vegetables, salads, milk, unpasteurised fruit juices, peanut butter, nuts, seeds and sprouted seeds. It gets into other foods by cross contamination from contact with raw foods, chopping boards, utensils, equipment and hands.
Salmonella bacteria can survive for long periods of time in foods and other substrates. It can be spread from person to person by poor hygiene, failing to wash your hands properly after going to the toilet, or after handling contaminated food.
If someone has salmonella, wash all dirty clothes, bedding and towels in the washing machine on the hottest cycle possible. Clean toilet seats, toilet bowls, flush handles, taps and wash hand basins after use with detergent and hot water, followed by a household disinfectant.
Salmonellosis is a notifiable disease in all Australian states and territories. It usually takes eight to 72 hours for symptoms of salmonellosis to occur, but can take up to a few weeks, so it is not necessarily the last meal you ate that caused it.
Salmonella causes a ‘gastro-flu-like’ infection which in most cases lasts about two to five days and can range from mild symptoms to severe disease and can be fatal.
Campylobacter is present in the gut of a wide range of animals, especially birds. Outbreaks have been linked to the consumption of undercooked meat particularly poultry (so don’t put stuffing inside a whole bird), unpasteurised milk, untreated water, and other foods that have been contaminated by raw foods like meat and poultry. Pets and farm animals may also be a source of infection, so thoroughly washing hands after contact with animals is very important.
Campylobacter doesn’t grow well in foods, but it only has to be present in food in low numbers to cause an infection. It is a problem because quite low numbers of the bacteria can cause illness.
The incubation period (the time between eating contaminated food and the start of symptoms) for food poisoning caused by campylobacter, is usually between two to seven days and can last about five days.
This nasty bacteria affects two in five of the world’s population and is one of the most common bacterial infections known to mankind.
This bacteria burrows through the gut mucosa that lines the stomach to attach to deeper layers of the stomach where it can reside for years undetected and is the cause of up to 95% of duodenal and up to 75% gastric ulcers and has also been associated with gastric cancer and lymphoma.
Australian pathologist, Robin Warren and Australian gastroenterologist, Barry Marshall, identified H. pylori in the early 1980’s. Since this discovery, the World Health Organisation has declared H. Pylori to be a Class 1 carcinogen (meaning the bacterium produces cancer).
The majority of people infected with H. pylori are asymptomatic, with other people experiencing burning pain in the upper portion of the abdomen, indigestion, nausea, vomiting, burping and loss of appetite.
Fewer than 10% of individuals colonised with H. pylori develop peptic ulcer disease, gastric cancer or mucosa-associated-lymph-tissue (MALT) lymphoma.
It is thought to be spread by kissing, eating from poorly washed cutlery and drinking poor quality water. Most infections occur in childhood.
A non-invasive ‘Urea Breath Test’ can be done with your local GP to detect the presence of an active infection and is often used to check whether eradication has been successful.
Food contamination is not just limited to foods you may consider risky, such as chicken or fish. Prepared fruits, vegetables and salads can also be potentially dangerous. Contaminated food will usually look, smell and taste normal. Food poisoning bacteria can grow and multiply on some types of food more easily than others.
Potentially high-risk foods include:
- Raw and cooked meat, including poultry such as chicken and turkey, and foods containing these, such as casseroles, curries and lasagne
- Dairy products, such as soft cheeses, custard and dairy-based desserts like custard tarts and cheesecake
- Eggs and egg products, such as quiche
- Smallgoods such as pate, hams and salamis
- Seafood, such as seafood salad, patties, fish balls, stews containing seafood and fish stock
- Cooked rice and pasta
- Prepared salads like coleslaws, pasta salads and rice salads, prepared bags of lettuce mix
- Prepared fruit salads
- Ready-to-eat foods, including sandwiches, rolls, and pizza that contain any of the foods above.
Treating food poisoning
Food poisoning can usually be treated at home without seeking medical advice. Most people will feel better within a few days.
People with diarrhoea and vomiting from any cause should stay home from work or school and drink plenty of fluids. Where possible, people should avoid preparing food at home while ill and for two days after their symptoms have finished. They may still spread some illnesses via food for this period after symptoms have stopped.
It’s important to avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of water, even if you can only sip it, as you need to replace any fluids lost through vomiting and diarrhoea.
You should also:
- Rest as much as possible
- As soon as possible, take a dose of the homoeopathic remedy “Arsenicum”
- Sip a mixture of equal parts water (or juice) and Apple Cider Vinegar (organic, with the mother) – repeat until my symptoms stop
- In water or some kind of soft food, take 1/2 tsp or more of activated charcoal (or capsules if you can swallow them) – repeat until my symptoms stop
- Eat when you feel up to it – sticking to small, light and non-fatty meals at first (bland foods such as toast, crackers, rice and bananas are good choices)
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, fizzy drinks and spicy and fatty foods because they may make you feel worse
Contact your GP if your symptoms are severe or don’t start to improve in a few days.
- Always wash hands before preparing and eating your meals with the ‘Handwashing 20/20 rule’ – wash hands with soap for 20 seconds, then dry hands for 20 seconds.
- Avoid cross contamination of food from chopping Boards, utensils and equipment
- Shopping and Food storage – take an insulated container with you when you go shopping. Always buy refrigerated food last, just before returning home and never leave chilled foods sitting in the car any longer than absolutely necessary.
- Buy food from sources you trust.
- Don’t leave edibles out of the fridge for more than two hours (especially pate’s, nut milks and animal foods);
- Use food grade hydrogen peroxide to disinfect your food (1 drop is more effective than cooking);
- Probiotics are a very powerful way to prevent and ease the symptoms of foodborne illnesses Include probiotic rich fermented foods in your diet and take a good quality probiotic daily.
- Add a few drops of Ionic or Colloidal silver to your drinking water once per day, and use as a first aid remedy during infection.
- Do a parasite cleanse at least twice a year.
- Reduce stress which depletes B vitamins and good gut bacteria.
- A homoeopathic first aid kit is a great natural alternative to treat food poisoning.
Which people are more at risk?
Some people can be more vulnerable to, or are affected more by the symptoms of food poisoning. These include:
- Children younger than 5 years old
- Pregnant women
- People older than 70 years of age with certain underlying conditions, and
- People with compromised immune systems through chronic or acute ill health and some conditions and treatments
In rare cases, food poisoning can result in long-term health problems and even death.
Where to get help?
- Come and see me at the clinic, or go to your local GP
- Contact your local council health department
- Health Direct Helpline (free call): 1800 022 222 – Registered nurses are available to provide information and advice when you’re not sure what to do.
- Symptom Checker – https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/after-hours-gp-helpline