Food Poisoning – Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention

Food poisoning affects an estimated 500,000 people in the UK every year. While most cases are mild and resolve on their own, food poisoning can sometimes lead to severe dehydration and other serious complications. By understanding what causes food poisoning, learning to recognize the symptoms, and following proper food safety practices, you can greatly reduce your risk of getting sick from contaminated food.

What Causes Food Poisoning?

Food poisoning occurs when you ingest food or drink contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, or toxins. Common culprits include:

  • Salmonella – Found in undercooked poultry, eggs, meat and unwashed fruits and vegetables.
  • Listeria – Occurs in unpasteurized dairy, soft cheeses, deli meats, smoked seafood and pre-packed sandwiches. Pregnant women are at higher risk of complications like miscarriage or stillbirth.
  • Campylobacter – Present in raw or undercooked poultry, unpasteurized dairy and contaminated water. The most frequent cause of food poisoning in the UK.
  • E. coli – Lives in the guts of animals like cattle. Spread through contaminated water, undercooked beef, unwashed produce and contact with animals.
  • Norovirus – Highly contagious virus transmitted through contaminated food, surfaces, and infected food handlers. Behind most outbreaks from restaurants, catered events and cruise ships.

Recognizing Food Poisoning Symptoms

Symptoms of foodborne illness usually start within 1-2 days of exposure but can take weeks to appear. Typical symptoms include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps and diarrhea
  • Fever, chills and headache
  • Fatigue and muscle aches
  • Loss of appetite

In severe cases, food poisoning can result in excessive dehydration, confusion, rapid heartbeat, kidney problems and reactive arthritis. Seek medical care if symptoms last more than 3 days or are accompanied by high fever, bloody stools, dizziness, or inability to keep liquids down.

Preventing Foodborne Illness

You can drastically reduce your chances of contracting food poisoning by practicing safe food handling and preparation in your home kitchen:

Wash hands and surfaces often – Wash hands for 20 seconds with soap before and after handling food. Sanitize countertops, cutting boards, utensils and sinks with a disinfectant.

Avoid cross-contamination – Use separate cutting boards and utensils for produce and raw meats. Never place cooked food back on a plate or surface that previously held raw meat.

Cook food to proper temperatures – Use a food thermometer to ensure meats like chicken and hamburger are cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F. Bring soups and leftovers to a boil before eating.

Chill and refrigerate promptly – Bacteria multiply rapidly at room temperature. Refrigerate perishable foods within 2 hours and divide large portions into shallow containers for quick cooling.

Thaw foods safely – Thaw frozen items like meat and poultry in the fridge, cold water or microwave, never at room temperature. Marinate foods in the refrigerator.

When in doubt, throw it out – Discard mouldy, foul smelling or expired items. Do not taste food that looks or smells suspicious.

Treating Food Poisoning

In most cases of food poisoning, treatment involves resting and staying hydrated until symptoms pass. Drink plenty of fluids like water, broths and oral rehydration solutions. Once you can tolerate them, eat bland foods like toast, rice, bananas and crackers.

Over-the-counter medications like loperamide can help control diarrhea, while paracetamol or ibuprofen may provide relief for headaches, fever and body aches. Seek medical attention if you experience persistent vomiting, bloody stools, confusion or other concerning symptoms.

By familiarizing yourself with proper home food safety, you can feel confident serving your family fresh, healthy meals without the fear of foodborne illness. Practicing good hygiene and taking steps like fully cooking meats, avoiding cross-contamination and refrigerating leftovers promptly will go a long way in keeping harmful bacteria at bay.

Photo “Unwell” by Anthony Cunningham for Zoom Health

Zoom Health is a leading UK supplier of Home Health Tests and Earplugs

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