Babies and food poisoning

Babies are one of those high risk groups for food poisoning which includes others such as the elderly, people with weak immune systems and pregnant women.

These groups all have a greater chance than usual for contracting food poisoning; plus if they do then they are likely to develop a more serious version and with the risk of complications.

A baby’s immature immune system

Babies are at risk due to the fact that they have an underdeveloped immune system which is unable to fight off disease and infection. Conversely, an adult has a fully functional immune system which has over the years, built up enough immunity to fight off any germs or bacteria.

Babies will start to develop immunity as they develop, due to daily contact with germs via everyday activities and contact. As soon as they encounter a germ their immune system will fight this which starts the process of developing immunity.

But if this germ or bacteria is too powerful –or has multiplied to a great extent, then it will overwhelm their immune system and cause an infection.

In those cases medical treatment will be required.

Types of food poisoning in babies

Babies can develop the same types of food poisoning as seen in adults. These are caused by bacteria and viruses, for example salmonella, e coli and campylobacter bacteria or norovirus.

Causes of food poisoning in babies

Food poisoning occurs if a baby has eaten something which is contaminated by bacteria such as e coli; has drunk water which is untreated or is infected; has touched an object such as toy which has been in contact with another infected baby; or has handled dirt or soil which contains infected animal faeces.

Symptoms of food poisoning

The symptoms of food poisoning can develop within as little as two hours after exposure to contaminated food or water.

They include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Irritability
  • Persistent crying
  • Stomach pains/cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea (this may be watery, contain mucus or blood)

They may be accompanied by chills, aches and pains and a headache.

Most cases of food poisoning clear up within a few days but if it persists, worsens or has led to complications such as dehydration then speak to your GP.

If you think that your baby has developed food poisoning and you are not sure whether to treat this yourself or seek medical attention then ask your GP or health visitor for advice.

Diagnosing food poisoning in babies

This is not easy to do due to the fact that babies are prone to all sorts of diseases and infections, many of which have similar symptoms to food poisoning.

An example of this is a stomach virus (or gastric flu) which has similar symptoms to food poisoning. These include abdominal pains, nausea, fever, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Your GP will ask for a stool sample from your baby. This involves the collection of a small sample of his/her faeces which is sent away for laboratory analysis. This analysis will be able to determine what bacteria (or virus) are responsible for the food poisoning.

This will help your GP to devise a course of treatment.

Treating food poisoning in babies

If your baby has a mild form of food poisoning then your GP will advise you to reduce his/her temperature; give him/her plenty of fluids to drink (possibly with an oral re-hydration powder added) and ensure that he/she gets plenty of rest.

You can give your baby ibuprofen if he/she has a fever but do not given him/her aspirin as this may cause Reye’s syndrome, a serious and potentially fatal disease.

Once your baby’s symptoms have started to ease you can then re-introduce drinks such as milk and food although avoid fatty, sugary foods.

Ensure that your baby is well hydrated.

Complications of food poisoning in babies

The main risk is dehydration.

Dehydration is a condition caused by excessive fluid loss from the body, often as a result of vomiting or diarrhoea. This is serious for an adult but even more for a baby due to their small size and lesser amount of fluids compared to an adult.

Hence they are less able to cope with dehydration than an adult.

Signs of dehydration include:

  • Sunken eyes
  • Dry mouth and lips
  • Fatigue/loss of energy
  • Lack of elasticity in the skin
  • The fontanelle (soft area on the top of the scalp) may be sunken in.
  • Unable to produce tears when crying
  • Pale skin
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Cold fingers/toes

Contact your GP if you suspect that your baby has dehydration. Serious cases will require admittance to hospital for re-hydration via an intravenous drip.

Dehydration is the main risk but there are others which include haemolytic uraemic syndrome.

Find out more about this and other medical conditions in our complications of food poisoning section.

It is impossible to prevent all cases of food poisoning. Babies and young children are prone to this and other similar infections so accept that it will happen on occasion.

However there are ways of reducing this risk.

Visit our preventing food poisoning section for further information.

Food Poisoning Guide

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