Here’s what to do if you get food poisoning.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Anna Bonet
Feel sick as a dog or stuck on the toilet with diarrhoea? Food poisoning usually strikes after eating contaminated foods, re-heating questionable leftovers or consuming something past its sell by date. Food poisoning is a common medical condition and while it usually clears up in a day or two, it can make you feel rather unwell in the meantime.
But how do you distinguish food poisoning from a simple stomach bug? And what can you do to ease your symptoms? We spoke to Kajsa Ernestam, health expert and in-house dietician at Lifesum, about food poisoning causes, treatments and what to eat if you get struck down by a sickness bug:
Food poisoning symptoms
The symptoms of food poisoning can begin just a few hours after eating the contaminated food but there can be a gap of a few days or even weeks, making it harder to identify the cause.
According to Ernestam, the main symptoms of food poisoning include:
You may experience any combination of these symptoms. Vomiting often starts first followed by diarrhoea. The diarrhoea can be watery, explosive and very frequent. It may contain mucous and occasionally blood.
⚠️ Pregnant women, young children, the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions or weak immune systems may be more severely affected and should contact their doctor if they have food poisoning.
What causes food poisoning?
Food poisoning occurs when you consume contaminated foodstuffs. ‘Food poisoning is the result of eating or drinking something that is either toxic, or that has been contaminated with germs, often by having been left out of the fridge for too long, not cooked properly, or eaten after its use by date,’ explains Ernestam.
Food poisoning can also occur if the person preparing and handling the food has dirty hands or is unwell themselves. ‘Food poisoning is often caused by bacteria, such as listeria, E.coli, campylobacter and salmonella, or a virus, such as norovirus,’ adds Ernestam.
Food can become contaminated at any point in its preparation. Common causes of food poisoning include:
- Not cooking meat thoroughly.
- Not reheating foods previously cooked foods.
- Leaving food out in warm temperatures.
- Leaving next to other foods which are contaminated.
- Not washing hands properly before preparing food.
Any food can give you food poisoning but common culprits include:
- Chicken and other raw poultry and meat
- Milk that is unpasteurised
- Raw eggs
- Pre-packed sandwiches
- Sandwich fillers such as pâté, cream cheese and sliced meat
Is it food poisoning or a stomach bug?
In many cases, food poisoning and gastroenteritis can be used interchangeably. And unfortunately, it’s difficult to tell clinically whether your symptoms are from eating contaminated food or because someone’s passed on a nasty bug to you.
Though it’s worth noting that diarrhoea illnesses are often caused by viruses rather than bacteria and are usually ‘self limiting’ – in other words, they can be managed at home without the need to see a doctor.
It’s difficult to tell clinically whether your symptoms are from eating contaminated food or because someone’s passed on a nasty bug.
The only real way of knowing which bug is to blame is to send a sample to the laboratory for assessment and, as most cases of diarrhoea and vomiting settle within a couple of days, doctors don’t always do this.
How to treat food poisoning
While it is an uncomfortable experience, food poisoning is rarely serious and usually gets better within a week. However, in more severe cases, symptoms can linger for up to one month. If you think you have food poisoning, try the following tips to ease your stomach and recover:
- Avoid dehydration
You lose fluids from your body through sweat, vomiting and diarrhoea. Drink plenty of fluids and sip small amounts frequently if you find them hard to keep down. Water is fine, you can use an Oral Rehydration Solution if you are at high risk of dehydration. Avoid fizzy drinks, alcohol and caffeine.
- Eat bland food
When you feel up to having some solid food, stick with simple, plain foods such as toast, rice, bananas and apples. Try small amounts at first and gradually build up as you feel better. Avoid spicy, rich and fatty foods. ‘I recommend healing your body with nutrition and vitamins from natural foods, a lot of liquids, rest, and, when you are up for it, some fresh air,’ Ernestam adds.
- Take time off
Stay off work or school until at least 48 hours after the last episode of diarrhoea to help prevent the spread of infection. ‘If you, or your child, has food poisoning then it is advised to stay home from school or work and to make sure that you rest and stay hydrated,’ says Ernestam. ‘Ensure that you wash your hands and do not prepare food, to avoid spreading it to anyone else.’
Food poisoning can leave you feeling exhausted, light headed and weak so rest as much as possible until you start to feel better.
- Try medication
If you are vomiting a lot, then see your doctor who may give you an anti-emetic medicine, such as domperidone to help control this. You can also try using Enterosgel, which works by adsorbing the bacteria or toxins in the gut that cause diarrhoea.
What to eat and drink if you have food poisoning
If you’ve experienced a particularly nasty bout of food poisoning, you might feel like you never want to eat again, but it is important to keep yourself hydrated and sustained. The goal is to eat foods that are easy to digest, so the best food and drinks to eat if you have food poisoning include the following:
✔️ The BRAT diet
The BRAT diet – which stands for bananas, rice, applesauce, toast — is a good place to start. Bland foods like crackers, potatoes and cooked carrots may also be gentle on the stomach. Replace lost fluids and electrolytes with liquids including water, sports drinks, fruit juices (with water added to dilute the juice) and broths.
✔️ Eat bland food
Opt for bland foods such as rice, potatoes, oatmeal, toast and egg whites until your stomach has settled.
✔️ Try applesauce
Applesauce is a great way to settle your stomach. Containing less fibre than apples (try to minimise your fibre intake when you’re suffering from food poisoning) the sauce is easy to digest and contains pectin, which can help with diarrhoea.
✔️ Sip ginger or peppermint tea
Studies have found that a soothing cup of your favourite herbal tea can do wonders to settle the nasty effects of food poisoning. Ginger tea is thought to reduce motion sickness, while peppermint tea is a known morning sickness remedy during pregnancy. Both will also reduce nausea and stomach pain.
✔️ Eat foods with a high-water content
Since food poisoning can leave the body very dehydrated, it is important to try to retain as much water as possible. In addition to the various drinks, foods that are high in water will help as well. Once you are ready to try food again, some good options are celery, tomatoes, aubergine, radishes, strawberries and the obvious cucumber and watermelon. All of these fruits and vegetables contain around 80-95 per cent water, and are also filled with natural sugars, important vitamins, such as vitamin A, B, and C, and minerals, such as potassium and magnesium.
Foods to avoid if you have food poisoning
Sidestep foods and drinks that could exacerbate your symptoms (especially if they could be the culprit for your original sickness!) including the following:
- Sugary drinks
- Spicy foods
- Fried food
- Dairy products
- Fatty foods
Is food poisoning contagious?
Even if it’s food poisoning, it’s best to assume that you are infectious for as long as you have symptoms and take extra care with hand washing after using the toilet and before preparing or eating food. You should also avoid preparing food for others wherever possible until the diarrhoea has settled.
According to the NHS you should stay off school or work until you have not been sick or had diarrhoea for at least two days.
When to see the doctor about food poisoning
If food poisoning symptoms persist or become more serious, contact your doctor. ‘If you are repeatedly vomiting, pass bloody stools, or have a high temperature then you should seek medical attention,’ says Ernestam. ‘Also, if you are experiencing symptoms of severe dehydration, such as not passing urine, dry mouth, or difficulty keeping fluids down, then call your GP.’
If you are repeatedly vomiting, pass bloody stools, or have a high temperature then you should seek medical attention.
Most food poisoning infection will clear up within a week but if you aren’t starting to get better after a few days or you are becoming significantly dehydrated then you should speak to your doctor. Similarly, pregnant women, young children, elderly people and those with underlying medical conditions or weak immune systems may be more severely affected and should contact their doctor as soon as possible if they have food poisoning.
Food poisoning prevention tips
There are a few things you can do to avoid getting food poisoning in the future. These include the following:
- Wash your hands
Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly and regularly with warm water and soap. Always wash them after going to the toilet, before eating, after handling pets and before and after preparing food.
- Follow use-by dates
Even if the food looks OK, don’t eat it if it has passed it’s use by date. This particularly applies to products containing meat or dairy.
- Cook food properly
Make sure all food, particularly meat, is always cooked through before eating it. Ensure pre-cooked food is reheated adequately.
- Cool down leftovers
If you’re saving a portion of food, make sure it’s throughly cooled down before putting it in the fridge or freezer. However, don’t leave it out for hours.
- Store food correctly
Check the instructions on food labels to ensure it is stored at the right temperature. Keep raw meat covered and on the bottom shelf of the fridge so it doesn’t drip down and contaminate other foods.
- Keep your fridge below 5C
Keep your fridge temperature below 5C to prevent harmful germs from growing and multiplying. Use a thermometer to check the temperature if necessary.