Is food poisoning dangerous?

Food Poisoning

An attack of food poisoning can be pretty grim, and more than half a million of us have to deal with it every year. That’s the official figure – the true number is probably even higher, as many won’t bother their GP about it.

Typically, symptoms don’t last longer than a few days, however, in some cases, the effects linger for weeks or months – even after a person is no longer vomiting or having severe symptoms after a bad bout of food poisoning. Sometimes people just can’t seem to get back to a normal GI rhythm or bowel function, sometimes they are left with lifelong health problems, including irritable bowel syndrome, lactose intolerance, arthritis, high blood pressure and even kidney failure.

The seriousness of food poisoning cannot be over-emphasised.  A tummy upset doesn’t even need to be particularly bad to have lasting effects. You may have a few days of diarrhoea and projectile vomiting then feel much better at the end of it, but there can be a lasting legacy. Food poisoning is one of the top causes of developing irritable bowel syndrome.  It is also implicated in an increased risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.  Food poisoning can be particularly dangerous to babies, the immune-compromised and the elderly.

Causes of food poisoning

Food poisoning can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites. They can appear in foods at any stage, from when they’re growing to when they are being packaged, shipped, stored, or cooked.

Certain foods are more likely to harbour harmful agents. These include raw eggs, unpasteurised milk and juice, soft cheeses, and raw or undercooked meat or seafood. Fresh produce is another risk. Foods made in bulk are problematic, too – one single bad egg could affect the whole batch of omelettes in a buffet. You could also cause trouble for yourself by not washing a cutting board or your hands as you prepare different foods.

  • Salmonella is the name of a group of bacteria. It grows in undercooked eggs and meat. But you can also get salmonella from unpasteurised milk or cheese. Some fruits and vegetables, such as pre-cut melon or sprouts, have been linked to salmonella poisoning outbreaks. Symptoms start within 1-3 days and can last up to a week.
  • Clostridium perfringens are bacteria that are more likely to show up when foods are prepared in bulk, such as in cafeterias, nursing homes, or for catered events. Cooking kills the bacteria but not its spores. So, food left warming can grow new germs. You can get it from beef, chicken, or gravy. Sometimes, you may have cramps and diarrhoea but no other symptoms. Most likely, you are to get sick within 6-24 hours and feel better within a couple of days.
  • Campylobacter comes from undercooked poultry, unpasteurised milk, and sometimes water. It may take 2-5 days to develop symptoms you can notice. But you should feel better in another 2-10 days. You can’t pass it to anyone. But if it’s serious, you might have bloody diarrhoea.
  • E. coli is a type of bacteria found in the intestines of animals, including humans. You can get this from undercooked ground beef, unpasteurised milk, sprouts, or any food or liquid that has come into contact with animal faeces or sewage. Some strains are harmless. Others can make you very sick.
  • Listeria is an unusual bacterium that can grow in cold temperatures such as in the refrigerator. It’s found in smoked fish, raw (unpasteurised) cheeses, ice cream, pates, hot dogs, and deli meats. Typically, symptoms occur within 24 hours of ingesting the product and you experience short-lived gastroenteritis with watery diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting and sometimes fever. That said, it can be much more serious in older, pregnant, or immune-compromised people. The bacterium can enter the bloodstream and central nervous system and cause an infection called listeriosis. This usually happens within 10 days to a month after exposure. In addition to diarrhoea and vomiting, listeria can cause unusual symptoms, including weakness, confusion, and a stiff neck. It can also be deadly. If you have any of these symptoms, call your doctor right away.
  • Norovirus, often called stomach flu, is behind more than half of the foodborne illnesses where the cause is known. Norovirus can sicken you not only through eating contaminated foods, but also through touching doorknobs and other surfaces, or having contact with an infected person. You should wipe down the kitchen if someone in your house has it. It typically takes 12-48 hours before you feel sick. Your symptoms may last 1-3 days.
  • Look out for the pathogens in unclean waters too. Swallowing water that is contaminated (usually when faeces are present) can also trigger the same symptoms as foodborne illnesses.

Symptoms of Severe Food Poisoning

  • Diarrhoea and a high temperature/ fever
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea for more than three days that is not improving
  • Bloody diarrhoea
  • So much vomiting that you cannot keep liquids down, which can lead to dehydration
  • Dehydration, which causes symptoms such as dry mouth and throat, feeling dizzy when standing up, not urinating much, and headaches

Higher Risk Groups

Anyone can get food poisoning, but some groups of people are more likely to get sick and have a more serious illness. Their ability to fight germs and sickness may not be as effective. These groups of people include:

  • Adults aged 65 and older
  • Children younger than age 5
  • People whose immune systems are weakened by health conditions or medicine used to treat them, including people with diabetes, liver or kidney disease, HIV/AIDS, or cancer
  • Pregnant people

These vulnerable people may get ill while other people who ate the exact same food may not, as their immune system is strong enough to deal with the bacteria.

People who are more likely to get food poisoning should not eat:

  • Undercooked or raw food from animals (such as beef, pork, chicken, turkey, eggs, or seafood)
  • Raw or lightly cooked sprouts such as beansprouts
  • Unpasteurised milk
  • Soft cheese, unless it is labelled as made with pasteurised milk

Steps to Prevent Food Poisoning

  • Wash your hands and work surfaces before, during, and after preparing food. Germs can survive in many places around your kitchen, including your hands, utensils, cutting boards, and countertops.
  • Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from ready-to-eat foods. Use separate cutting boards and keep raw meat away from other foods in your shopping trolley and refrigerator.
  • Cook food to the right internal temperature to kill harmful bacteria. Use a food thermometer.
  • Keep your refrigerator at the correct temperature. Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours of cooking (or within 1 hour if food is exposed to higher temperatures, like in a hot car)

Food poisoning and Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)/ Post-Infectious IBS

Different bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, Shigella, and Campylobacter jejuni, which contaminate food and water, all produce a neurotoxin called toxin B. This toxin causes the intestinal cells to become enlarged or distended. As a result, the immune system reacts by producing antibodies to eliminate the toxin B. As the number of antibodies against the toxin increases in the human body, the chances of developing SIBO also increase.

An autoimmune response also causes a reduction of healthy protein (called vinculin) in the intestine. Since the protein vinculin is responsible for stimulating muscles in the gut to push down food through the digestive tract, less vinculin causes the nerve cells and gut muscles to get weaker, thereby impacting the Migrating Motor Complex (MMC) that usually keeps the small intestine relatively sterile. The gut becomes sluggish when too few MMC waves are initiated, which means food stays in the intestine for too long, giving bacteria a chance to grow. Gradually the symptoms of SIBO, such as gas, bloating, and inflammation, occur.

IBS that develops after a bout of food poisoning is usually labelled as Post-Infectious IBS by a doctor, however research suggests that this is actually SIBO. SIBO will not go away on its own. It needs a proper treatment with someone who specialises in this area. To know if someone has SIBO, they need a breath test to determine if the SIBO is methane- (usually causes constipation) or hydrogen-dominant (usually causes bloating and irregular bowel movements), and if positive, a diet and supplement protocol to kill the SIBO needs to be carried out.  This is not for the faint-hearted though.  Eradication treatment takes time and dedication.  You can read more about SIBO in our blog post here:

What should you do if you get food poisoning?

Unfortunately, many people are affected by foodborne illnesses at some point in their life. It can happen even if you make healthy food choices, and it can also happen if you take any kind of acid-suppressing medication like proton pump inhibitors.  Stomach acid is there for a reason – to help digest food, but to also nuke any parasite, pathogenic bug or virus trying to get into the body.  If you’re taking medication to reduce your stomach acid, it can make it so much easier for pathogens to get into your gut.

If you get food poisoning, begin taking our activated Charcoal capsules immediately, three capsules half an hour before and after meals, to help bind and excrete the bacteria and toxins in your gut.  Take the capsules until symptoms subside.  If you’re not eating, take three capsules every three hours. 

Just for tummies charcoal tablets

Also ensure you take steps to heal your gut immediately after the bout of food poisoning has ended.

A study has shown that glutamine helps in reducing the symptoms of post-infectious SIBO or IBS as it helps with improving the integrity of the gut lining which can become damaged. Collagen contains glutamine, so try drinking lots of bone broth.  You can also take a glutamine supplement like this powdered one from Cytoplan:

Just for tummies Live Bacteria Probiotic Capsules

Supplementing with probiotics after food poisoning is strongly recommended. To help replenish the levels of beneficial bacteria, especially if you’ve had diarrhoea for several days, take one of our Live Bacteria probiotic capsules twice daily before meals for a minimum of three months, to reduce the risk of you getting IBS.  Food poisoning is strongly linked to an increased risk of getting IBS and taking a three-month course of probiotics will help to reduce any such risks.

You should also take measures to repair and strengthen your gut’s Migrating Motor Complex (MMC), the electromechanical activity that takes place in intestinal muscles between meals. A natural health practitioner may tell you to undergo therapeutic procedures like acupuncture, abdominal massage, and recommend specific tailored supplements depending on any medications you are on, and, although you may think it counter-productive if you’ve had diarrhoea, colon hydrotherapy treatment to help cleanse your bowels and wash out any parasites or other pathogens.