About food poisoning
Food poisoning is a type of gastroenteritis.
Food poisoning happens when we eat foods like red meat, chicken, seafood, eggs or cream that have germs in them. The germs grow because the food is undercooked, poorly reheated or not refrigerated properly. Germs can also grow when the food is prepared with dirty hands or dirty equipment.
Many different types of germs can cause food poisoning. Bacteria are often the cause, but some viruses, parasites and toxins can also cause food poisoning.
Symptoms of food poisoning
Symptoms might include:
Food poisoning can happen anytime from a few hours to a few days after eating bad food. It often takes 24-48 hours for the symptoms of food poisoning to settle down.
Symptoms of food poisoning can be more severe in babies than in older children and teenagers.
If your child has the symptoms of food poisoning, you should watch your child for signs of dehydration.
Does your child need to see a doctor about food poisoning?
See your GP if your child has:
- diarrhoea that goes on for more than a few days
- bloody diarrhoea.
Take your child to a hospital emergency department straight away if your child:
- has severe stomach pain and vomiting and can’t keep any fluid down
- isn’t drinking and has signs of dehydration, including little or no urination, weight loss, tiredness and extreme thirst
- has symptoms of food poisoning and is less than one year old
- shows signs of being extremely unwell.
Treatment for food poisoning
Most cases of food poisoning are mild, and your child won’t need any specific treatment. But it’s important to make sure that your child has enough to drink.
Give your child small amounts to drink often – for example, a few mouthfuls every 15 minutes. This will help to prevent dehydration.
It’s best to use an oral rehydration fluid like Gastrolyte, Hydralyte, Pedialyte or Repalyte. You can buy these fluids over the counter from a pharmacy. These products might come as premade liquid, powder or icy poles for freezing. Make sure that you make up the liquid carefully according to the instructions on the packet.
If you can’t get oral rehydration fluid, you can use diluted lemonade, cordial or fruit juice. Use 1 part lemonade or juice to 4 parts water. Full-strength lemonade, cordial or fruit juice might make the diarrhoea worse, so don’t give these to your child.
If you have a breastfed baby, keep breastfeeding but feed more often. You can give your child extra oral rehydration fluid between feeds.
If your baby is bottle fed, give them oral rehydration fluid for the first 24 hours only and then reintroduce full-strength formula in smaller, more frequent feeds. You can still offer extra oral rehydration fluids between feeds.
Getting your child to drink
Your child might not be keen to drink. You can try to get your child drinking more by giving them drinks via a syringe or spoon, and letting them suck icy poles.
Your child might refuse food to start with. But don’t stop food for more than 24 hours.
If your child is hungry, you can give them food at the same time as fluid. It’s generally best to start with bland foods like plain biscuits, bread, rice, potato or jelly. They can start eating other foods gradually.
Avoid giving your child dairy products for 7-10 days after an episode of food poisoning, because this might make the diarrhoea go on longer.
Additional treatment and complications
If your child is very dehydrated or can’t keep oral fluids down, they might need fluids to be given through a tube that goes up their nose and into the stomach or directly into a vein through a drip. In this case, your child will have to go into hospital.
Don’t treat your child with antidiarrhoea medicines. There’s no evidence to show that these medicines work. Your doctor or pharmacist will tell you about the best treatment options for your child.
Preventing food poisoning
The first step to preventing food poisoning is always washing your hands thoroughly before eating and handling food.
Here’s how to prepare food hygienically:
- Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly.
- Check that meats are fresh and don’t smell bad.
- Cook meat and eggs well.
- Use separate surfaces or chopping boards for raw meat and vegetables.
- Don’t prepare food for others if you’re sick.
When you’re reheating food, do so thoroughly.
Make sure you store food properly and at the right temperature so it’s protected from contamination. And remember to check the use-by or best-before date on packaging before eating.
And here are some tips for avoiding food poisoning when you’re eating out:
- Check the cleanliness of the restaurant or takeaway food shop.
- Consider whether staff follow good hygiene practices.
- Check that food is being stored and served at the correct temperature.
- Check that meat is cooked right through.
- Eat takeaway food within a few hours or put it in the fridge as soon as possible.