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Food Poisoning

Food Poisoning

Food poisoning is a very common illness. Each year it is estimated that as many as 5.5 million people in the UK may suffer from a food borne illness - that's about 1 in 10 people.

This section gives details on what food poisoning is, how to prevent food poisoning, what tell-tail signs to look for, and also what to do if you think you may have contracted food poisoning in a survival situation.

What is Food Poisoning?

To start with, an understanding of what food poisoning is has to be established. Food poisoning can occur in two main forms; either by a food product or substance which is naturally of a poisonous nature, or by a food product or substance which has been contaminated.

Foods that are naturally poisonous are foods such as plants, algae and mushrooms. Contamination can be due to food and drink coming into contact with the toxins released by bacteria or chemicals.

There are six contributory groups by which an individual can contract food poisoning:

  • Allergies
  • Viruses
  • Plants & Algae
  • Mushrooms and Moulds
  • Chemicals
  • Bacteria

Allergies and viral organisms do not work in the same way as the other four perpetrators.

Allergies are exaggerated reactions (sneezing, runny nose, itching, skin rash, difficulty in breathing) to substances that do not affect other individuals.

Viruses are very small disease-causing micro-organisms that are too small to be seen even with microscopes. Viruses and allergies cannot multiply or produce toxins outside of a living cell.

Plants & Algae, Mushrooms and Moulds, Chemicals and Bacteria all release harmful toxins which are responsible for most of the symptoms which are notoriously common with food poisoning.

Chemical poisoning is more common than expected. It can be found in the form of food additives (although this is less often the case these days due to the rigorous tests which such additives must undertake before they are allowed to be sold in foods) and also in different metals such as cadmium, lead, copper, tin, iron and zinc.

These metals have all been found in cooking utensils, and should they be presented with the acids in certain foods, chemical poisoning is possible.

Antimony is a metal, which is often used in the coating on enamel containers. When the containers get chipped, the antimony is exposed, and antimony poisoning is a possibility.

Treating Food Poisoning

The treatment of food poisoning is very limited, and often only the effects can be treated rather than the causes. Therefore it is essential that in the preparation of food and drink, a conscious attempt be made to prevent initial contamination, and also to prevent the escalation of bacterial growth.

Bacteria need 4 main conditions, to reproduce: -

  • Moisture
  • Food
  • Temperatures between 5 and 63c
  • Time (Although not much. In the right conditions one bacterium can multiply to more than 4 million in just 8 hours!)

The majority of foodborne bacteria will die at temperatures of around 70c and above. Therefore, thorough cooking of foods, especially meat products such as mince where the bacteria can be mixed throughout the meet, should kill of the majority of bacteria.

Clostridium Perfringens

One of the main exceptions is Clostridium perfringens. The toxins released by this bacterium will not be destroyed by temperatures imposed by cooking, even when the bacteria will.

Most food-borne bacteria can grow in food at temperatures between 10-5c (fridges should be kept at about 4c). Food poisoning is caused only if a person is infected by a certain number of bacteria - ranging from tens of bacteria for E.coli to 1 million for Clostridium perfringens.

Food lightly contaminated with Clostridium perfringens could, if not chilled appropriately, become toxic overnight.

The prevention of cross-contamination is one of the best methods of helping to ensure food and drink is safe.

Cross-contamination can occur either by direct contact with other food or drink which is contaminated, or by indirect contact, i.e. surfaces, chopping boards and utensils. By keeping all equipment and surfaces clean, the risk of contamination is reduced.

This is more significant for foods such as salads and cheeses, which are not cooked before consumption.

Cooking Hygiene

Removing harmful micro-organisms from surfaces, chopping boards, equipment, utensils and hands prevents them from spreading to foods, drinks and other surfaces/apparatus.

A survey of catering staff carried out by the FSA in 2002 found that over a third did not wash their hands after visiting the lavatory while at work!

However, if Sod's Law should prevail, and an individual is unlucky enough to contract a case of food poisoning, they could expect to be subject to any of the following afflictions: -

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Pus in stools
  • Numbness
  • Weakness
  • Tingling sensation in mouth fingers and feet
  • Fever
  • Abdominal pains

The severity of the symptoms varies on the bacterial contact that has been instigated. Whilst in a comfortable environment, a case of food poisoning can often be overcome within a couple of days, with no solid food and plenty of water to replace the fluids lost during diarrhea and vomiting.

However, if you are in a survival situation, or in the desert (where keeping your body's fluid levels up in the heat is hard enough), it can be a very serious infirmity and in such situations and the like, it can even be life threatening.

If you are in a survival situation and treatment for food poisoning has to be provided, the following first aid techniques should be applied: -

  • Carry out the IA
  • Keep the casualty at rest
  • Give NOTHING by mouth
  • Evacuate immediately

It is essential that during periods where the effects of food poisoning are most severe, the casualty must be kept hydrated at all times in order to replace the fluids lost by diarrhea and vomiting.

If you are in a situation, where the water supply is plentiful, but you are unsure of the purity of the water, you can use water purification tablets and a millbanks bag to remove impurities and bacteria.

Desert Conditions

One final type of food poisoning needs to be mentioned, which is very common among people living in a desert climate.

It is very common to get a dose of diarrhea after a dust, or sand storm. This is caused by particles of sand and dust getting into the system and irritating the walls of the stomach and gut.

Again, there is no treatment, other than to keep yourself well hydrated.

Prevention is the key here. Try to wear some sort of face mask whenever the wind picks up and there is sand and dust blowing around.

Thanks to Will for contributing this article on Food Poisoning.

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