In the UK there are over 800,000 cases of food poisoning every year. Almost every single one of us will fall victim to the dreaded 'bad stomach' at some stage in our lives.
For us Brits, going abroad seems to be a major trigger for food poisoning. The government has recently announced plans for a widespread crackdown on fake food poisoning claims from British holidaymakers following a wave of complaints from hoteliers who were suffering the burden of multiple cases against them. So how do you get food poisoning, what can you do to prevent it, and how can you work out where you consumed the contaminant in the first place?
How do you get food poisoning?
Food poisoning is caused by consumption of food that is contaminated in some way, either by a virus, a parasite, or bacteria. Food can be contaminated at any stage of production, from sourcing and harvesting to cooking and serving. This is the reason for stringent health and safety checks across the food and restaurant industry.
If not handled correctly, there are certain foods that are more susceptible to contamination than others. Amongst the most common offenders are raw meat and poultry, raw eggs or shellfish, soft cheese, sliced meat and pre-packed sandwiches.
Most of us are familiar with the main symptoms of food poisoning: vomiting and diarrhoea. It's not difficult to understand what happens when a contaminant enters your system - your body will find any way possible to purge itself of the foreign body and to create a hostile environment that prevents it from spreading. Vomiting and diarrhoea are often accompanied by a range of other indicators including:
• Loss of appetite
• Feeling weak
• Aching muscles
• Stomach cramps
• Raised temperature
Symptoms will usually begin to show up one or two days after ingesting the contaminated food, but the gestation period can vary drastically. Campylobacter can actually take as long as 5 days to appear, whilst a virus such as Giardia or Cryptosporidium could take several weeks. Some contaminants will show symptoms within a matter of hours. This range can make it very difficult to identify the exact source of the original contamination.
How do I work out where I got food poisoning?
Working out exactly when and where you consumed contaminated food can be more challenging than you would think. Most people assume the source was the last food they have eaten before becoming ill, but this is often not the case. Contaminated food often looks, smells and tastes completely normal and you may have consumed the offending item days or even weeks ago.
Additionally, there are several contaminants that can be ingested simply by touching a contaminated surface and then licking your fingers. As an additional complication, the symptoms of gastroenteritis are also similar to those of food poisoning and can make it difficult to distinguish between the two.
If you do feel certain that you have contracted food poisoning, the cause could be anything you have eaten in the last eight hours to two weeks. That's a wide margin and is likely to include a variety of different foods and locations. Try to create a food diary for that specific time period.
There are several online guides that will give you an overview of the main food-borne contaminants, the foods they can be carried in, the symptoms and the gestation period. Comparing your personal food diary against this list could help you to identify the source. Also, think about the foods you shared with other people. If you ate your meal with someone else and they haven't fallen sick, the chances are that you can rule that meal out as a potential cause.
If you do suspect you have contracted food poisoning from a particular restaurant or food product, it's a good idea to report it to the Food Standard's Agency, who can follow up to help prevent further outbreaks. If other people have made a similar report they may be able to compare your food diary to help track down the source of the contamination.
The vast majority of cases of food poisoning will pass within a few days and don't require a visit to the doctor. Make sure you get plenty of rest and consume enough fluids, particularly if you are experiencing vomiting or diarrhoea.
Once your appetite returns, try eating small portions of bland food to avoid disrupting your digestion. White rice, plain toast or crackers are all gentle on a disrupted digestive system. If you have lost a lot of fluids during the illness, it may be a good idea to consume rehydration sachets. These are readily available over the counter at your local pharmacy.
If your symptoms persist for more than two days, or if you are pregnant, over 60 or struggling to keep down fluids, it's a good idea to consult a doctor.
How to avoid food poisoning
The best way to avoid food poisoning is to maintain good standards of cleanliness whilst preparing foods, and to avoid eating at food outlets that have a low food hygiene rating.
When cooking at home, always stick to the 'use by date' and ensure that you clean kitchen surfaces and linens on a regular basis. Ensure that meat products are cooked thoroughly and that the juices run clear before you serve. Never reheat your food more than once and always wash your hands before and after handling raw food or meat to avoid cross-contamination. Use different chopping boards for meat and vegetables.
When travelling in countries with a high risk of contamination, ensure you consume bottled water. Use it to clean your teeth too. Avoid drinks with ice cubes or salads and vegetables that have been washed in water. Instead, opt for fruits you can peel yourself.
Dr Seth Rankin is founder of London Doctors Clinic