Food Poisoning – Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

Food poisoning is the food-borne illness that you may contract when you eat contaminated food. This is a common ailment which most of us will experience at some time in our life and can be avoided with proper handling and storing of food. It can affect both food and drinks and causes severe symptoms such as diarrhoea and vomiting. If left untreated, food poisoning can be potentially fatal, especially in debilitated and immunocompromised patients.

Causes of Food Poisoning

When bacteria, viruses or parasites contaminate food and are able to multiply profusely, this may very likely result in a case of food poisoning. The microorganism itself may cause the symptoms or it may be caused by toxins secreted by these pathogens. This contamination can occur at any time – from the point of processing and production or when being prepared and stored. It can also occur in the home and is common in hotter areas when food is not stored appropriately or if it is not refridgerated. When eating raw or partially cooked foods, the risk of food poisoning is much higher.

Food poisoning can be a result of contamination from many types of microorganisms. Most of the time we hear about Salmonella, E.coli and hepatitis A food poisoning but there are other bacteria, viruses and parasites that may be involved. Faecal contamination is one of the most common methods of transmission of the contaminant but it may also arise when food is not refridgerated properly or if utensils used on raw meat are then used on food that is then eaten without any further cooking.

Signs and Symptoms of Food Poisoning

The signs and symptoms may vary although a watery diarrhoea (‘runny tummy’), nausea and vomiting are the most common causes. The duration of the symptoms may vary from 1 to 2 days to up to 8 days in cases of E.coli food poisoning. The symptoms usually start within 6 to 8 hours after eating the contaminated food.

Other signs and symptoms of food poisoning include :

  • Abdominal pain.
  • Intestinal or stomach cramps.
  • Fever.
  • Fatigue.
  • Reduced appetite.
  • Flatulence.

If left untreated, prolonged diarrhoea and vomiting may result in dehydration. Other complications could affect the brain, kidneys, blood circulation or the foetus in pregnant women and even result in death.

Treatment of Food Poisoning

If you are healthy, your doctor may only advise supportive treatment until your body gets rid of the causative organism or toxins. This involves bed rest, drinking plenty of fluids and avoiding solid foods. You should not take anti-diarrhoeal tablets to stop the diarrhoea. This keeps the organism and toxins within your system and can lead to complications. Passing it out with the diarrhoea and when vomiting is your body’s mechanism to flush out the pathogen. The most important measure at this point is to keep rehydrating yourself, preferably with an isotonic solution rather than plain water. Refer to the article on Diarrhoea Diet.

If your symptoms are persisting, your doctor may may request a blood test or a stool sample for further examination in a laboratory. By identifying the cause, the appropriate treatment can be initiated. In patients who are immunocompromised, like in HIV/AIDS, medical treatment is necessary and a simple case of food poisoning should not be ignored as it can be potentially fatal.

In severe cases that result in dehydration, you may have to be hospitalised so that your doctor can set up an IV drip to rehydrate you. At times, the watery diarrhoea may persist even after you recover from the food poisoning. This is often due to using antibiotics (antibiotic associate diarrhoea) or in severe cases of food poisoning and is a result of the ‘good’ bowel bacteria (normal intestinal flora) having been eradicated. You will need a probiotic to help restore the intestinal flora and this will settle your diarrhoea within a few days. Do not opt for a live culture yoghurt as the dairy may aggravate your condition.