Children and food poisoning

Food poisoning is a common childhood illness along with other types of gastrointestinal diseases. Most if not all children will develop food poisoning at some point in their childhood.

In many of these cases it resolves itself without any long term effects but complications can occur in a small minority of cases.

Why are children prone to food poisoning?

Children are considered at high risk for food poisoning which can be attributed to their underdeveloped immune systems. Their systems are not as effective at fighting off bacteria and viruses compared to an adult.

Children do build up immunity to diseases as they get older but they still contract all manner of illnesses and infections whilst still very young.

If you think back to when you were a child you can probably remember most of the illnesses you picked up, for example measles or chicken pox. But you have probably found that you have developed a strong immune system as a result of this.

Does your child have food poisoning?

This is an important question to ask as it is easy to assume that every child who develops vomiting and diarrhoea has food poisoning.

But this is not always the case.

Many cases of vomiting and diarrhoea can be linked to viral infections that children tend to pick up at a nursery, play centre or school.

However children are vulnerable to food poisoning, in particular, acute or chronic cases of food poisoning which can in some cases, lead to life threatening complications.

So, if you suspect that your child has food poisoning then ask your health visitor or GP for advice.

Types of food poisoning in children


Viral food poisoning is the most common gastrointestinal illness in children especially those aged under 2. These include norovirus and rotavirus.

Viruses can spread very easily and in places where large groups of people congregate. A good example of this is a school or hospital which is why food poisoning spreads very quickly in these places.

Children are particularly prone to viruses which are due to their underdeveloped immune systems and the fact that they come into regular contact with other children. They are likely to touch surfaces and objects such as toys which have been in contact with other children.

That includes those with a viral infection.

If you are a parent then you are probably familiar with your child picking up infections on a regular basis which they have acquired from others at school or nursery. Viruses spread as droplets (via sneezing or coughing) through the air or onto surfaces which are then touched by others.

Viral infections are more common in the winter months.


Bacterial food poisoning occurs when someone consumes contaminated food or water. The bacteria that cause this release toxins which then cause food poisoning.

Examples of bacterial food poisoning include campylobacter, e coli, salmonella and bacillus cereus.

E coli is a particularly harmful bacteria especially the E coli 0157:H7 strain which can be dangerous in children. In some cases it can even be fatal.

Causes of food poisoning in children

Food poisoning develops in children in the same way as for babies and adults. It is caused by the following:

  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Parasites

Symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea often occur as a consequence of another condition such as lactose (milk) intolerance, urinary tract infection or a chest infection.

Occasionally, these symptoms develop as a side effect of certain medications such as antibiotics or antimalarials.

Symptoms of food poisoning in children

These symptoms may vary according to the type of bacterial food poisoning. Each strain of bacteria will cause its own individual symptoms but there are symptoms which are common to all across all forms of food poisoning.

These include:

  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Chills
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Abdominal pains

Do not take these symptoms too lightly as they have the ability to become severe. Children especially infants have a less well developed digestive system (and immune system) which means that their tolerance is low for food poisoning.

Diagnosing food poisoning in children

You need to be aware that symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea can be an indicator of another gastrointestinal illness. So, if your child has these symptoms it may not automatically mean that they have food poisoning.

But children are one of several high risk groups for food poisoning which also includes the risk of complications.

So, ask your GP for advice if you suspect that your child has developed food poisoning.

If you are asked to bring your child in to the surgery then your GP will ask you questions about your child’s symptoms; what he/she has eaten; if you and your family have recently travelled abroad and your child’s medical history.

He/she will ask you to provide a stool sample. A stool sample involves you collecting a small sample of your child’s faeces which is then sent away for laboratory analysis. This will enable your GP to determine the cause of your child’s food poisoning and use these results to devise a treatment plan.

Treating food poisoning in children

Mild cases of food poisoning can be treated at home. This means keeping your child off school until he/she is recovered; ensuring he/she gets plenty of rest and staying rehydrated.

Regarding re-hydration: ensure that your child has plenty of drinks which include an oral re-hydration powder. These powders can be purchased over the counter at your local pharmacy and are dissolved in liquid. They consist of electrolytes (salt, sugar etc) and are needed to replace fluids lost during their illness.

Serious cases of dehydration require fluids via an intravenous drip in hospital.

You can give your child a painkiller such as ibuprofen if he/she has a temperature or a headache. But if you are not sure what is and isn’t safe to give your child then ask your pharmacist or GP for advice.

Most children recover from food poisoning within a week.

Complications of food poisoning in children

Most cases of food poisoning resolve themselves but complications occur in a small percentage of cases.

Dehydration is the main complication of food poisoning. It is more serious in children than adults due to the fact that children’s bodies contain lesser amounts of fluids. Plus a child’s body weight is less than that of an adult so any depletion will be more noticeable.

Find out more in our complications of food poisoning section.

Can you prevent your child from getting food poisoning?

This is very difficult to do so as children are prone to illness and infection. This is due to their underdeveloped immune systems plus the fact that schools and nurseries are ideal breeding grounds for bacteria and germs.

Plus children do not always take care when washing their hands after visiting the toilet. They do not always realise the importance of this doing this and especially before handling any food.

Educate your child about the importance of washing their hands after going to the toilet. And to wash their hands every time they handle any food.

Food Poisoning Guide

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