Food Poisoning

That sickening feeling in your stomach, the constant nausea, the cramping… and the fear that these symptoms are turning into a nasty case of food poisoning. A handful of us have experienced food poisoning, but do we really know what causes it?

What is it?

Food poisoning is a common, usually mild, but sometimes deadly illness. Typical symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, and diarrhoea that comes on suddenly (within 48 hours) of consuming a contaminated food or drink. Depending on the contaminant, fever and chills, bloody stools, dehydration, and nervous system damage may follow. These symptoms may affect one person or a group of people who ate the same thing (this would be called an outbreak).

What causes it?

More than 200 known diseases can be transmitted through food. Those are just the ones we know about. Many cases of food poisoning are not reported because people suffer mild symptoms and recover quickly. Also, doctors do not test for a cause in every suspected case because it does not change the treatment or the outcome.

The known causes of food poisoning can be divided into 2 categories: infective agents and toxic agents.

  • Infective agents include viruses, bacteria, and parasites.
  • Toxic agents include poisonous mushrooms, improperly prepared exotic foods (such as barracuda), or pesticides on fruits and vegetables.
  • Food usually becomes contaminated from poor sanitation or preparation. Food handlers who do not wash their hands after using the bathroom or have infections themselves often cause contamination. Improperly packaged food stored at the wrong temperature also promotes contamination.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of food poisoning depend on the type of contaminant and the amount eaten. The symptoms can develop rapidly, within 30 minutes, or slowly, worsening over days to weeks. Most of the common contaminants cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and abdominal cramping. Usually food poisoning is not serious, and the illness runs its course in 24-48 hours. Main symptoms include:

  • Nausea, Vomiting, Diarrhoea.
  • Bloody diarrhoea or pus in the stool.
  • Upset stomach, some abdominal pain, cramps.
  • Fever that lasts longer than 24 hours.
  • Dizziness, fainting, rapid heart rate.
  • Weakness, numbness or tingling in the arms, legs or mouth.

Are there any natural therapies?

If your symptoms are mild, you probably don't need a doctor. However, if your symptoms are severe or last longer than two days, seek medical advice immediately.

Vomiting and diarrhoea are the body's way of flushing poison out of your system, this is a natural process. However, because repeated vomiting or diarrhoea can remove large amounts of fluid from your system, drink plenty of filtered water to replenish your system, and use an electrolyte replacement drink to prevent dehydration.

  • Ginger has traditionally been used to ease nausea and vomiting.
  • The herbs Slippery Elm and Peppermint may help to relieve the irritation and inflammation of the digestive tract.
  • Once the condition has settled, restore the natural gut flora by taking a probiotic supplement containing acidophilus and bifidus.

What else can I do?

  • Do not eat solid food while nauseous or vomiting but drink plenty of fluids.
  • Small, frequent sips of clear liquids (those you can see through) are the best way to stay hydrated.
  • Avoid alcoholic, caffeinated, or sugary drinks, if possible. Over-the-counter rehydration products made for children such as Pedialyte and Rehydralyte are expensive but good to use if available.
  • Sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade are fine for adults if they are diluted with water because at full strength they contain too much sugar, which can worsen diarrhoea.
  • After successfully tolerating fluids, eating should begin slowly, when nausea and vomiting have stopped. Plain foods that are easy on the stomach should be started in small amounts. Consider eating rice, wheat, breads, potatoes, cereals (low-sugar cereals), lean meats, and chicken (not fried) to start. Milk can be given safely, although some people may experience additional stomach upset due to lactose intolerance.

Did you know?

Some of the most severe food poisoning can result in long-term illness and death. However, most food poisoning is not serious. Most people begin feeling better within 24-48 hours. Queasiness or nausea and slight diarrhea may stay for 1-2 days longer.