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The summer’s approaching. Many of us have booked a break away for a bit of sun, sand, sea and… salmonella. Unfortunately, food poisoning is something that many people experience each year as they jet off to warmer climes to escape the typical British summer.
Where you’re headed and where you stay plays a big part in your risk of food poisoning on holiday. If you’ve booked a break in Spain like over 18 million other Brits each year (at least in pre-Covid times), you might want to think again! According to the Express, Spain is the food poisoning capital of the world according to a survey by Slater and Gordon of 2,000 holidaymakers. Surprisingly, Spain beat Egypt, Turkey and Greece in the food poisoning stats.
Thankfully, for most of us, food poisoning won’t feature in our much-needed break. But, for those it does affect, it can ruin their holiday and they’ll end up spending more time in the bathroom than on the beach.
What is food poisoning?
For many of us, foreign travel and food go hand in hand. We love nothing more than trying the local cuisine and exploring the culture through food. We sit to eat, drink and be merry with our family and friends, sharing dishes that we may not otherwise eat at home. That is until food poisoning comes along and ruins it all.
Food poisoning can be a mild or serious illness caused by eating contaminated food.
Those suffering often experience the following symptoms:
- Feeling sick.
- Loss of appetite.
- A fever of over 38°C.
- Stomach cramps.
- Aches and pains.
It may be difficult for someone to pinpoint the food that caused their food poisoning as often the symptoms begin a couple of days after eating. Sometimes, the symptoms can start more rapidly within a few hours, but they can also start weeks later in rare cases too.
For most people, the symptoms are usually short-lived, lasting around 24–48 hours. The majority also do not need to seek medical attention whilst they’re away. However, in rare cases, food poisoning can be much more serious and can even lead to death.
What causes food poisoning?
Food poisoning is caused by bacteria in food. The most common bacteria are:
- E. coli.
Holidaymakers are more likely to contract food poisoning from food that has not been prepared, cooked or stored properly, or from food that was touched by someone who did not wash their hands. Risk factors include re-heated food and food that has been left a while before being eaten.
These foods are often in the temperature ‘danger zone’ for bacteria growth. Bacteria grow rapidly in temperatures between 8°C and 60°C. As such, food that has been left for a while can stay in this danger zone. This also can mean that the food has been left open to pests including vermin, insects and birds.
Certain foods also bring with them a higher chance of food poisoning. These are:
- Poultry and other meat.
- Shellfish and seafood.
- Raw or lightly cooked eggs.
- Dairy products including milk.
- Prepared salads, fruits and vegetables.
- Cooked pasta and rice.
However, food poisoning is not always from food, believe it or not! You can also contract food poisoning through person-to-person contact with someone else. The vomiting bug norovirus is also transmitted this way and often brings an abrupt end to someone’s time on the beach.
What are the different types of food poisoning?
Most cases of food poisoning are caused by bacteria being present in the food or water that we have consumed. Foodborne diseases can also be caused by parasites and viruses.
Many of us have heard of salmonella. It is a bacterium that is found in raw or undercooked eggs, meat, seafood, untreated water and unpasteurised milk. It causes an infection called salmonellosis which affects your intestinal tract.
The salmonella bacteria commonly live in human and animal intestines and are excreted in faeces. During the slaughter and processing of animal products, the bacteria and be transferred into the food products. Food such as fruit, vegetables and shellfish can also become contaminated with salmonella if they come into contact with human or animal faeces, including manure used as a crop fertiliser or water with sewage contamination. Holidaymakers are therefore usually infected through contaminated food and water most often due to cross-contamination or inadequate cooking.
Salmonella is often serious in younger children and the elderly as well as those whose immune systems are compromised. Moreover, whilst for most salmonella poisoning is short-lived, studies have revealed that 1 in 10 people go on to develop irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) after contracting salmonella food poisoning.
E. coli is short for Escherichia coli. E. coli is a bacterium that lives in our intestines. Many strains of this bacteria are actually harmless, but many can cause significant illness. They can cause an infection and induce gastroenteritis with symptoms such as stomach upset, abdominal pains, bloody diarrhoea and fever. With foodborne infection, the most common strain is E. coli O157.
E. coli O157 is spread through undercooked and raw meats. It can also be passed on through other foods including salads and vegetables, unpasteurised milk and water. E. coli can also be passed on from person to person. E coli food poisoning is most often a mild infection that resolves within days or perhaps weeks. However, research has shown that those who have contracted E. coli are at a greater risk of developing other problems later in life including high blood pressure, heart disease and kidney problems.
Campylobacter is thought to be a less serious infection than those caused by salmonella and E. coli. Most people with campylobacter infection experience symptoms relatively soon after they have come into contact with it. This does not mean that it is always a mild infection, however. Younger children and the elderly are most at risk of suffering from a severe illness with campylobacter.
One of the main foods in which campylobacter is found is raw chicken. Cross-contamination to other foods can occur when people are preparing chicken, such as washing it or cutting it without washing their hands. It is also found in other meats, untreated water and unpasteurised milk. Campylobacter spreads easily, but it doesn’t multiply in food. However, you only need to ingest a small amount to become infected.
Norovirus is often called the ‘winter vomiting bug’ thanks to its tendency to cause its victim to vomit excessively, often for days. Other symptoms include diarrhoea, body aches and fever. Whilst it is an airborne virus, it can be contracted by eating food that has been prepared by someone with norovirus.
Due to it being highly contagious among people, certain types of holidays are more prone to causing norovirus infections and outbreaks, such as holidays on cruises where people are in close contact with each other, with the cruise ship turning into a floating petri dish.
This is an infection caused by the cryptosporidium parasite. This type of food poisoning mostly affects children, but adults are not necessarily immune to it either. Cryptosporidium is found in water and is often linked with drinking contaminated water or swimming in it.
Given that many children swallow the water from a swimming pool, it is no surprise that the infection can crop up. Also, fruits and vegetables that have been washed in contaminated water can pass on the parasites, so food is not always safe from cryptosporidium either.
Listeria is a rarer bacterium that causes listeriosis, a bacterial infection. It is usually contracted by eating food that is contaminated such as unpasteurised milk or dairy products. If someone else has listeriosis, they can also pass this on if they do not wash their hands before handling food.
The symptoms of this kind of food poisoning include fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and aches and pains. For most people, listeria is not much of a concern. However, it can be serious for those with weakened immune systems or pregnant women.
How to avoid food poisoning on holiday
When you’ve saved all year for a holiday abroad, it can be devastating to have it ruined by food poisoning. Most of us have all heard or read about the holiday horror stories caused by food poisoning, with people coming back without that holiday sun-kissed glow due to spending most of their time in their hotel room’s bathroom. It is often difficult to avoid if you have booked a place with food provided. Thankfully, there are steps to take to avoid food poisoning on holiday.
There’s nothing more delicious than fruit on holiday. It’s bigger, better and juicier. However, fruit can be a source of food poisoning. Whilst those big, juicy strawberries look tempting, because they are grown near ground level, they have an increased risk of contamination from the soil. Giving them a good wash is usually enough. However, if you’re feeling extra cautious, opting for fruits that you peel such as bananas, oranges and pineapples are a safer bet.
Salads that have not been washed pose a risk of food poisoning, but likewise, so do those that have been washed in potentially contaminated water. It may be wise to avoid salad leaves altogether.
Pre-prepared shellfish also poses a risk of food poisoning on holiday. Shellfish also goes off extremely quickly in comparison with other foods, and this is only exacerbated by the warmer weather abroad.
Depending on the area, it would be wise to drink only bottled water rather than water from the tap. What people often forget, however, is that ice in bars and restaurants is often made with tap water. Ask for your drinks to be made without ice or only use ice if you know it has been made with purified or bottled water. The same goes for brushing your teeth – use bottled water if you can.
Most people indulge in a little ice-cream on holiday. However, in hotter climes, you need to be aware that a street vendor selling ice-cream may not have the right facilities to keep it as cool as it should be. The thawing and refreezing of ice-cream can pose a risk to our health as bacteria are given the opportunity to multiply as the ice-cream cools. Choose sorbets or ice lollies as a safer option.
Many holiday places offer buffet-style restaurants. However, any food that has been on a buffet for a while poses a greater risk of food poisoning than freshly cooked foods. If the buffet has stations where food is freshly cooked, go for those rather than food that has been sitting for a while. Choose dishes that are piping hot over cooler ones.
What else can you do?
Aside from the advice on what foods to avoid, there are other things that you can do to prevent food poisoning on holiday:
- Wash your hands thoroughly before eating.
- Carry hand sanitiser when out and about.
- Take a pro-biotic for a few weeks before you go away as they can line the stomach with ‘friendly’ bacteria, boosting the immune system and helping with digestion.
- Use wrapped straws for drinks.
- Buy packaged foods if self-catering.
- Be prepared if food poisoning does strike by having medications to hand such as diarrhoea tablets, paracetamol and rehydration sachets to help ease the symptoms.
- Do your research! If you are going to a certain place, have a look at what to expect from the food and water supply and think ahead.
What to do if you get food poisoning on holiday
Getting food poisoning on holiday can really ruin your experience. Fortunately, there are things that you can do to ease your symptoms and make the experience as bearable as possible until it subsides.
- Drink lots of water. By drinking lots of water, you replace the fluids lost through vomiting and diarrhoea. If drinking is difficult, try taking small sips every five minutes.
- Replace lost salts and minerals with rehydration sachets such as Dioralyte. This helps to rebalance the body and helps you to recover and feel better more quickly.
- Take paracetamol to reduce fevers, aches and pains.
- Imodium and other anti-diarrhoea medications can help to ease your diarrhoea symptoms. However, it’s important to note that they don’t cure your infection, just reduce the frequency of your dashing to the loo.
- Report your illness. If you are experiencing food poisoning on holiday, it is important to pass this information on to the manager of the hotel or restaurant. If you have food poisoning, the chances are that others are also suffering. If you have a holiday company representative in your hotel or resort, it is important to let them know too. Should things get worse and you need medical treatment, these people should be able to assist you.
- Keep a log of when your symptoms started and how long they have persisted. Try to remember where and what you ate in the days leading up to the illness.
- When you feel up to eating, stick to bland foods.
- On your return home, visit your GP if you continue to suffer from the effects. They may be able to help treat the condition or the symptoms.
- Seek guidance on whether you should take your experience further and take legal action. There are many companies out there who will offer compensation to those who have suffered from poor hygiene practices on holiday.
How to plan ahead before your holiday
As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. Hopefully, by following a few suggestions about what foods and drinks to stay clear of, you can avoid food poisoning on your holiday. However, nobody should be complacent and planning ahead is an essential part of any holiday.
- Make sure you have medical insurance. Whilst it’s not likely that you’ll need it, the last thing you want to be doing is trying to find the funds to pay for hospital treatment abroad if you have a bad case of food poisoning.
- Take probiotics for a few weeks before your holiday. Probiotics replenish the gut with ‘good’ bacteria that aid digestion and boost the immune system when it is faced with bad bacteria in contaminated food.
- Have an adequate first aid kit including paracetamol, rehydration sachets, diarrhoea medication, hand gel and water purification tablets.
- Eat well in the weeks leading up to your holiday. Having a healthy body before a holiday can help you if you’re faced with contaminated food.
- Take a stash of snacks from home that may appeal when faced with food that doesn’t look quite right or in case you don’t fancy eating much after a case of food poisoning. Protein bars or cereal bars make a good choice.
With a bit of luck, you will chuck your Imodium and Dioralyte back in the kitchen drawer when you return home. But, planning ahead could make any potential bout of holiday food poisoning that little bit more bearable.
With many of us having the confidence to travel abroad again in the wake of the Covid-19 travel restrictions, there are likely to be increased cases of food poisoning on holiday amongst Brits. However, by taking a few precautions and planning ahead, most should avoid the unpleasant souvenir that is food poisoning.