Food poisoning can be an uncomfortable and sometimes serious illness, caused by food which has been contaminated by bacteria and germs, causing unpleasant symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhoea. Food poisoning will usually clear up within a week using home treatment. However, if it is a serious case of food poisoning, you might require immediate medical attention. Therefore, it is important to be aware of why food poisoning occurs and how to treat it.
How do you get food poisoning?
Food poisoning occurs if you consume food which has been contaminated with germs, such as bacteria or viruses.
Germs contaminate food if:
- Food isn't cooked properly, and therefore the core temperature of food does not reach 75°C or 70°C for at least 2 minutes, and therefore all bacteria is not killed off completely.
- Food has been left out on the side for a long period of time, allowing warm conditions to encourage bacteria to grow and multiply.
- Someone who is ill handles food with their bare hands, without washing them thoroughly, allowing pathogens to transfer from the hands to the food.
- Reheated food isn't reheated thoroughly, and therefore the present bacteria is not killed off.
- Food isn't stored properly, either in a freezer or a fridge, allowing bacteria to grow in ideal warm conditions. Refrigerated foods should be kept between the temperature of 0°C and 5°C. Refrigerators should therefore be set at 3°C or 4°C.
- Food is eaten well after the date of expiry.
Which bacteria causes food poisoning?
The most common forms of bacteria which contaminate food are:
Salmonella: This bacterium lives in the gut of many farm animals and can contaminate poultry, milk and eggs.
Escherichia coli (E. coli): This bacterium lives on raw or undercooked meat, such as burgers.
Campylobacter: This bacterium lives in the gut of poultry, such as raw chicken, and is the largest cause of food poisoning in the UK.
Listeria: This bacterium contaminates ready-meals, such as cooked sliced meats.
What are signs of food poisoning?
The symptoms of food poisoning begin around 6 hours after consuming contaminated food and include the following:
- Cramps in the stomach
- A temperature above 38C
- Body aches
How do you treat food poisoning?
Usually, food poisoning can be treated at home and will therefore clear up within a week. However, if it is a bad case of food poisoning, urgent medical attention could be needed and the hospital will have to treat you for this, taking you potentially longer to recover.
If you are treating yourself at home, ensure you get lots of rest, drink lots of water to stay hydrated and eat bland food in small doses.
Call your GP if:
- Your symptoms don't improve after a couple of days.
- You are vomiting repeatedly and are unable to keep a tiny amount of liquid down.
- You are severely dehydrated, meaning that you become confused, your heartbeat is rapid and you're unable to pass much urine.
How to avoid food poisoning
To avoid food poisoning and the unpleasant consequences, try the following:
- Ensure you cook meat thoroughly, until there is no pink showing and the core temperature is 70°C for 2 minutes. A clean thermometer or probe will allow you to check the temperature at the centre.
- Store your food properly. If it is meant to be frozen, ensure you place it in the freezer.
- If you are reheating food, such as meat, ensure you do this thoroughly until it is piping hot.
- Always check the "Use By" date on food, and do not continue to eat it afterwards.
- If you are going out to eat, find out the food hygiene rating of the restaurant to ensure they have good practice with their food.
- If you are the person preparing food, ensure your own personal hygiene is of a high standard, such as thoroughly washed hands, clean clothes, hair tied back and gloves on your hands when handling food.
In November 2019, it was a reported that there was a breakout of the bacterium Listeria, which affected sandwiches that had been kept in a warm fridge at the Royal Derby Hospital. The Derby City Council investigated the Royal Derby Hospital, which had handed out sandwiches to patients that had been stored in "ineffective" fridges, allowing the sandwiches to sit in warm and unhygienic conditions.
After a thorough investigation, it was found that some of the sandwiches had been stored at 13.1°C, which constitutes a serious breach of the Food Safety and Hygiene (England) Regulations 2013. Food hygiene is a priority in hospitals because the patients there can have weakened immune systems. There had been a breakout of the bacterium listeria, resulting in the sad death of six patients at the hospital.
Therefore, it is important to remain aware of how food poisoning can occur and how to avoid the unpleasant consequences.