The Ultimate Survival Guide to Food Poisoning

Symptoms, types, causes and what to do if you're a food poisoning victim
January 15, 2013
By Danielle Cullen

Food poisoning is an illness caused by eating food that is contaminated by dangerous bacteria (known as “pathogens”), viruses or toxins.

You may have heard of some of the most common types of bacteria that cause food poisonings – such as E.Coli, Listeria and Salmonella. You need to consume sufficient quantities of these bacteria to get sick. To ensure that bacteria do not reach dangerous levels of food should always be handled, stored and prepared carefully. In countries such as the US and Australia, approximately 1 in 6 people suffer from foodborne illnesses each year. These statistics are increasing due to changing eating habits and the way in which food is processed and distributed.

Symptoms of Food Poisoning

The most common symptoms of food poisoning are vomiting, diarrhoea, nausea, stomach cramps, fever and headache. Symptoms can range from mild to very severe. Food poisoning symptoms may occur immediately after consuming the food or up to a few days later. Most symptoms disappear without treatment within a couple of days, but some may last up to a week. Common symptoms that most people suffering from food poisoning experience include: Nausea Vomiting Diarrhoea Fever Stomach cramps Headache Some more infrequent, but dangerous, complications from food poisoning may include miscarriage, meningitis, seizures, paralysis or even death.

Types of Food Poisoning

Bacteria, viruses or toxins from bacteria are the main types of contaminants that can cause people to get sick from consuming contaminated food. Food poisoning is most often caused by bacteria, viruses or toxins. Bacteria Some of the most common include Listeria, E.Coli and Salmonella. Some of these, such as Listeria, occur widely in nature. You need to eat sufficient quantities of dangerous bacteria to get sick. Viruses linked to food poisoning include Norovirus, Rotavirus and Hepatitis A. These are not only spread via food but can be passed person-to-person or via contaminated surfaces.

Toxins are produced by bacteria and it may be the toxins rather than the bacteria themselves that are dangerous to humans. Some common toxins include Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus cereus and Clostridium perfringens. Other causes may include naturally occurring poisons or toxins (such as in some fish and mushrooms), insecticides, or other chemicals that may have contaminated the food.

Causes of Food Poisoning

Some foods provide a better environment for bacteria than others – these are considered ‘high risk’ foods. However, all foods should be stored, handled and prepared carefully. Some foods naturally contain more dangerous bacteria or toxins than others – such as meat, fish and dairy products. However, in many cases, adequate storage and temperature control can minimise or eradicate the danger. The most common causes of food poisoning include: Poor Hygiene Poor hand washing technique is a common source of contamination. Always wash your hands before preparing food and after going to the toilet, smoking, eating or handling money. If you are feeling unwell, do not handle food.

Uncooked Food Food must be cooked thoroughly to eradicate dangerous bacteria. Some foods, such as poultry, are especially dangerous if not cooked right through. Cross Contamination Bacteria may be spread by using utensils or surfaces that are not thoroughly cleaned after use. Make sure that raw food never touches cooked food, and never use your apron or a towel to wipe plates or touch food.

What to do if you've got food poisoning

In most cases, food poisoning symptoms will stop in a couple of days without medical help.

However, if you have very severe symptoms, are still sick after 3 days or if you can’t keep fluids down for more than 1 day then you should visit the doctor. Similarly, if you are in a “high risk” group (see below) then you should seek medical attention immediately. If you think that you may have got food poisoning outside of your home – such as in a restaurant, café or takeaway – then it’s a good idea to report this to your local council or health department so that the causes can be investigated.

Determine if you are at high risk

If you are at 'high-risk' then you should seek medical advice immediately. High-risk groups include pregnant women, children under 5 years old, the elderly over 70 years old, immuno-compromised people and those who were already sick prior to the food poisoning incident.

If in doubt, then seek medical advice. Food poisoning can have serious consequences and it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Make sure you stay well hydrated

One of the most common complications of food poisoning is dehydration. This is when your body loses too much water and electrolytes – such as sodium and potassium. Drink plenty of water and if possible a rehydration solution.

One such solution that you can make yourself consists of 1 litre of water, 1 teaspoon of salt and 4 teaspoons of sugar mixed together.

Eat and handle food responsibly

When suffering from food poisoning do not handle or prepare food while you are ill and for at least 2 days after the symptoms have stopped. 

It may be best to avoid solid foods while you are suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea. Instead, take plenty of fluids and when you are able to tolerate these, start moving onto plain, soft foods.

And finally, always avoid coffee and alcohol when you have food poisoning.

If your food poisoning symptoms are severe, always contact a medical professional.

Did you know?

The most common complication of food poisoning is dehydration when your body loses too much water and electrolytes.
If you are suffering from food poisoning be sure to rehydrate well!

The dangers of food poisoning

Most people who have food poisoning suffer from common symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea and a fever but recover fully within 24 hours to a week.

However, for some, the consequences are more severe. In the US, 3000 deaths each year are attributed to food poisoning, and many other victims suffer from ailments such as paralysis, kidney problems, seizures and comas.

Some groups of people are considered more at risk than others – these include unborn babies, children, the elderly and sick or immune-compromised people.

Food poisoning can also be contagious depending on how it was caused. When you are sick, your vomit and faeces are full of the organism that made you sick. If you live with someone in a high-risk group you need to be extra careful not to pass the bacteria onto them.

People with food allergies can sometimes display similar symptoms to those with food poisoning. However, always looks out for signs of wheezing, shortness of breath or swelling around the mouth and lips. If these are observed, then get help immediately.

Ways to prevent food poisoning

It’s not always possible to prevent food poisoning, but it is possible to minimise the risk. The two key points to remember are that you need to stop food from getting contaminated with dangerous bacteria, and you also need to prevent any bacteria from growing and multiplying.

Bacteria need certain conditions to grow and thrive. They multiply best when the food is kept between 5C and 60C and on foods that are high in protein and moisture. Neutral acidity is also important – bacteria are rarely found in foods that are very acidic or alkaline.

Follow these simple rules to reduce the risk of food poisoning

Safe Food Storage

Check that your refrigerator has a temperature of less than 5C, and your freezer is below -15C.

Store raw food at the bottom of your refrigerator and ensure that all food is always kept in a container or protected with foil or plastic wrap.

Finally, always allow cooked foods to cool to about 21C before refrigerating, and discard food that has been taken out of the refrigerator for more than 2 hours.

Safe Food Preparation

Always wash your hands thoroughly before preparing food, as well as in between preparing different types of food such as raw and cooked meat.

Different utensils and equipment - such as chopping boards - should be used for different types of food.

And ensure that preparation surfaces, kitchen equipment and table tops are kept clean and dry at all times during the food preparation process.

Safe Food Cooking & Heating

Most foods should be cooked or reheated to a temperature of 75C or higher. If you have a thermometer use it. If not, then use the following rules... Hamburgers, roasts, minced meat and sausages should be cooked right through until juices run clear. Poultry should be cooked until the meat is white, especially near the bone. And white fish should be cooked until it flakes easily with a fork.

Safe Food Shopping

Always check the labels on food, and never buy food in damaged packaging. Keep hot and cold food separate and purchase them at the end of the shopping trip to keep them out of the Temperature Danger Zone for as long as possible. When at the deli, ensure the staff use separate tongs for different food types and wear gloves when serving. And always take your shopping home quickly and store immediately.

Important Information

The information related to health and illness in this guide is offered for general informational and educational purposes only; it is not offered as and does not constitute medical advice. In no way are any of the materials presented meant to be a substitute for professional medical care or attention by a qualified practitioner, nor should they be construed as such?

You should not act or rely upon any of the health- or illness-related resources and information available in or on this website without seeking the advice of a qualified physician or other healthcare providers.