Food poisoning is an illness, usually caused by eating or drinking food or water contaminated by bacteria (germs) or the poisons that they produce.
It can be caught from food eaten at home, at restaurants or abroad.
The common symptoms associated with food poisoning include:-
- nausea and
- stomach cramps
These usually occur within two to thirty-six hours of consumption of the food, although with some types of food poisoning, illness may not occur for days or even weeks.
The last thing eaten is not necessarily the cause of the food poisoning. The symptoms usually last between one and seven days, although this may be longer.
All the time you have the symptoms, and in some cases for some time after, you can transmit the infection to other people if you are not careful.
What should I do if I think I have food poisoning?
Food poisoning can only be confirmed by laboratory testing and so you should contact your local GP regarding providing a stool sample, which can be sent for analysis.
If the sample is positive for a food poisoning bacteria, Public Health England are informed, who in turn ask our Food & Safety Team to try and identify a source of infection.
We would then contact you to identify what foods you have eaten and from where they were purchased.
How do you catch food poisoning?
Food poisoning is mainly caught from contaminated food or water.
The common causes of food poisoning are:
- under cooked meat or poultry
- inadequate temperature control of food
- food contaminated by raw meat or poultry
- food contaminated by food handlers with unclean hands
- food contaminated by unclean equipment
- cleaning surfaces and equipment with dirty clothes
Incorrect storage, handling, preparation and cooking of food can lead to food poisoning in your own home, as well as in food businesses.
Unfortunately, contaminated food usually looks, smells and tastes fine, so you cannot tell that it is contaminated.
The role of our Food & Safety Team
Doctors have to notify our Food & Safety Team about cases of certain infectious diseases, including food poisoning, and we have a duty to investigate such cases.
We try to establish the cause of the food poisoning, and we follow this up where necessary by inspecting food premises to help prevent other people suffering from food poisoning.
We also provide advice on precautions which should be taken, especially to people in groups where there is a high risk of passing on the infection. This includes food handlers, young children and people who look after the very young, the elderly or the ill.
Even when the symptoms have cleared, you may still carry and excrete the bacteria for several weeks. Close contacts to the ill person may also carry and excrete the bacteria, even though they have had no symptoms.
With some types of food poisoning, people in the high risk groups, mentioned above, who are carrying the bacteria, must not return to work until they have been cleared by ourselves.
What to do whilst you or a member of your family have food poisoning
Take care with your hygiene, and in particular, wash your hands thoroughly:
- after using the toilet
- before handling food and
- before eating or feeding others.
We would also recommend increased cleaning of touch surfaces such as toilet seats and handles, light switches, door handles, etc.
If you are a food handler, healthcare worker or work with the elderly or children under five years old, do not return to work until you have checked with us, by contacting the Food & Safety Team using the details below.
Food handlers suffering from food poisoning must report this matter to the Environmental Health Service or their employer, by law.
If you are not included in the above list of people, generally you can return to work when your symptoms have cleared, unless the Environmental Health Service or your doctor tell you not to.
Children should not return to school until 24 hours after the first normal stool, or in accordance with your school’s policy, and children attending nursery, when their symptoms have cleared for 48 hours.
General precautions to prevent food poisoning
- Wash hands thoroughly: before and after handling food, especially after handling raw meat and poultry; after using the toilet; after changing nappies and handling soiled clothing; after touching animals, especially before handling food.
- Cover open cuts and sores which may come into contact with food with waterproof plasters.
- If possible, do not prepare food for other people when suffering from food poisoning symptoms.
- Maintain high standards of hygiene in the kitchen. Keep kitchen surfaces and equipment clean and use anti-bacterial cleaning materials where possible.
- Keep cooked foods and uncooked foods, especially raw meat and poultry, separate. This will also include using separate chopping boards, plates and knives.
- Keep pets out of the kitchen when preparing food, and keep them off work surfaces.
- Use pasteurised or UHT milk and cream.
- When travelling abroad, check beforehand that water and ice is safe to consume. If it is not, or if in doubt, make sure it is sterilised using chlorine tablets for example, or buy bottled water.
- Additionally, avoid eating salads and raw fruit / vegetables that have been washed with non-sterilised water in countries where the water is not safe to consume.
- If you are sick, elderly, pregnant or susceptible to infections, or are preparing food for such people, toddlers or babies: avoid raw / undercooked eggs; avoid soft cheeses; reheat cook-chill meals until piping hot.
- Keep all perishable foods in a refrigerator.
- Your fridge should operate at below 5C to prevent bacteria growing.
- Store cooked or ready-to-eat foods above raw meat and vegetables.
- Ensure frozen foods, especially meat and poultry, are fully thawed before cooking.
- Ensure food is cooked thoroughly.
- Cool food quickly and refrigerate as soon as possible after cooking.
- If reheating food ensure that it is piping hot.
Types of food poisoning organisms and symptom chart
Poultry, meat, raw egg products, human and animal excreta, carriers
Utensils, work surfaces, hands
Raw to cooked / ready-to-eat food
6-36 hours. Usually 12-24 hours
Skin, nose, spots and boils
Hands, coughs, sneezes, open infected wounds
Cooked / ready-to-eat food
Vomiting, diarrhoea, pain, cramps
Animals (especially dogs), poultry, dairy products
Hands, undercooked poultry, pork and eggs
Undercooked foods, faecal-oral route
Abdominal cramp, diarrhoea, often bile stained
3 days - 3 weeks
Surfaces, hands, utensils
Cooked rice, corn flour, sauces
Acute vomiting, some diarrhoea
Animal excreta, human excreta, raw meats, dehydrated products
Soil, dust, utensils, work surfaces, hands, unwashed vegetables and fruit
Warm storage, slow cooking, braised, stewed and steamed foods
Abdominal pain, diarrhoea
Soil, meat, fish, including smoked
Imperfectly processed canned and bottled foods
Canned and bottled foods
Fatigue, dizziness, headache, possible death
Very slow, can be fatal
Human excreta, water
Hands, utensils, surfaces
Raw foods to cooked / ready-to-eat
Diarrhoea (mucus and blood)
More information on food poisoning can be found of the Food Standards Agency website.