What are the complications of food poisoning?
Complications are uncommon in the UK. Those who are older are more likely to develop complications. Complications are also more likely if you have an ongoing (chronic) condition such as diabetes or if your immune system is not working normally. (For example, if you are taking long-term steroid medication or you are having chemotherapy treatment for cancer.) Possible complications include the following:
- Salt (electrolyte) imbalance and lack of fluid (dehydration) in your body. This is the most common complication. It occurs if the salts and water that are lost in your stools (faeces), or when you are sick (vomit), are not replaced by you drinking adequate fluids. If you can manage to drink plenty of fluids then dehydration is unlikely to occur, or is only likely to be mild, and will soon recover as you drink. Severe dehydration can lead to a drop in your blood pressure. This can cause reduced blood flow to your vital organs. If dehydration is not treated, your kidneys may be damaged. Some people who become severely dehydrated need a "drip" of fluid directly into a vein. This requires admission to hospital. People who are elderly or pregnant are more at risk of dehydration.
- Reactive complications. Rarely, other parts of your body can "react" to an infection that occurs in your bowels. This can cause symptoms such as joint inflammation (arthritis), skin inflammation and eye inflammation (either conjunctivitis or uveitis).
- Spread of infection to other parts of your body such as your bones, joints, or the meninges that surround your brain and spinal cord. This is rare. If it does occur, it is more likely if diarrhoea is caused by salmonella infection.
- Persistent diarrhoea syndromes may rarely develop:
- Irritable bowel syndrome is sometimes triggered by a bout of food poisoning.
- Lactose intolerance can sometimes occur for a period of time after food poisoning. This is known as "secondary" or "acquired" lactose intolerance. Your bowel (intestinal) lining can be damaged by an episode of bowel infection. This leads to lack of a chemical (enzyme) called lactase that is needed to help your body digest a sugar called lactose that is in milk. Lactose intolerance leads to bloating, tummy (abdominal) pain, wind and watery stools after drinking milk. The condition gets better when the infection is over and the bowel lining heals. It is more common in children than in adults.
- Haemolytic uraemic syndrome is another potential complication. It is rare and is usually associated with food poisoning caused by a certain type of E. coli infection. It is a serious condition where there is anaemia, a low platelet count in the blood and kidney failure. It is more common in children. If recognised and treated, most people recover well.
- Guillain-Barré syndrome may rarely be triggered by campylobacter infection. This is a condition that affects the nerves throughout your body and limbs, causing weakness and sensory problems. See separate leaflet called Guillain-Barré syndrome for more details.
- Reduced effectiveness of some medicines. During an episode of food poisoning, certain medicines that you may be taking for other conditions or reasons may not be as effective. This is because the diarrhoea and/or vomiting means that reduced amounts of the medicines are taken up (absorbed) into your body. Examples of such medicines are those for epilepsy, diabetes and contraception. Speak to your doctor or practice nurse if you are unsure of what to do if you are taking other medicines and have food poisoning.
Further reading and references
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