When Food Poisoning Isn’t

Sometime commenter Bloke in Spain makes the following remark at Tim Worstall’s:

I suspect that “food poisoning” is a lot less common than reports of it would suggest. I’ve lost count of the visitors down here who reckons they’ve suffered “food poisoning” eating much stuff as the rest of us.

I concur.  When I was a kid we had things called “stomach upsets” that would make you vomit and give you diarrhea for a day or two and (in our household) would see you confined to bed on a diet of dry Ryvitas and lemon squash until you got better. We’d also be given kaolin and morphine, a brilliant medicine which is now hard to find and has been replaced with Imodium which just bungs you up like concrete and does nothing for the pain.

Anyway, everyone got these upset stomachs from time to time and in my adult life I get one about once every two years.  However, as part of a general trend towards irrationality, ignorance, and increased use of hyperbole among the general population I noticed some time ago that most people now think a regular stomach upset is food poisoning.  The first time I heard this was back in my catered halls of residence in Manchester University around 1997 or 1998 when a female student got sick after eating the grub that was served up in the canteen.  She claimed it was food poisoning, whereas the chef – who wasn’t student and hence had some sense – pointed out that several hundred other residents had eaten the same food and had not fallen sick.

I remembered this when I was in Sakhalin in 2008 and I ate a meal in the canteen at the LNG plant that had me throwing up in the snow on the drive back to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  I felt ill the minute I’d finished eating and the pain only got worse, and I wondered if the baked beans with bacon strips that I’d covered my mashed potato with (hey, this was on site in Russia) had been bad.  The illness barely lasted 24 hours and when I inquired two days later I found there was no mass outbreak of food poisoning among the staff and contractors so I concluded it was just a stomach bug.

Food poisoning is fucking serious.  I’ve fortunately never had it, but I have spoken to people who have and aside from being easily capable of killing you it is something which lasts for several days and makes you wish it would get on with it and kill you.  Just like a migraine is not a headache (another false equivalence people draw), and a cold is not ‘flu, an upset stomach is not food poisoning.  So whenever I hear people say they were off work for a day with food poisoning, I mark them down as a hysterical idiot or an ignoramus.

A few years ago I was flying back to Lagos from Phuket and felt a surging pain in my stomach on the flight between Phuket and Bangkok.  I tried wishing the pain away and pretending it was indigestion but on the transfer bus from the plane and the terminal I felt so nauseous I almost passed out.  I found the nearest toilet and threw up mightily, making a right racket as I did so.  I then spun around 180 degrees and emptied myself from the other end.  You know how it is.  I had an hour or so to wait until my connecting flight to Dubai, and so took some Imodium and Alka-Seltzer hoping these would settle my stomach.  I kept these down for a few minutes and then threw the lot up again.  In such situations I simply stop eating believing, correctly or not, that if you don’t eat then the bug has nothing to feed on and will starve.  Even if this is bollocks I have found that eating nothing for a day will cure any stomach upsets I typically encounter.

By the time I came to board the flight I was feeling a bit better, and so took my seat.  Only when we started rumbling down the taxiway I began to feel queasy.  I was sat with the window beside me on my right side, an empty seat beside me (thank God) and a middle-aged man was in the third seat beside the aisle.  As the engines roared for takeoff I felt the pain in my stomach flare up and for the first time in my life I reached for the air sickness bag, into which I threw up just as the nose wheel parted company with the tarmac.  I mentioned before I made a racket being sick, and for some reason I do.  Something to do with the air being pushed past the vocal chords, but I sound like I’m roaring like wounded bull.  I made so much noise that I could be heard by everybody on the lower deck of an Airbus A380 over the noise of four General Electric jet engines on takeoff mode.

Unsurprisingly, once we’d achieved the altitude at which the stewardesses can take off their seatbelts and stand up, they all came running through the cabin asking “Who the fuck was that?”, only using slightly more polite language.  I put my paw in the air and ‘fessed up (before handing them a lovely bag full of sick) and then somebody showed up with a clipboard and started bombarding me with questions.  They asked if I was airsick, and I said no, I have an upset stomach.  They asked if I was feeling ill before boarding, and I lied and said I merely felt queasy.  They asked me whether I’d eaten anything before, presumably thinking there was a possibility I’d gotten to my age on a diet of fresh air.  I told them I’d eaten part of a pizza back in Phuket, but those who’d eaten the rest of it were fine (I’d called them and asked).  The stewardess with the clipboard looked at me and said “Okay, we’ll put it down as food poisoning from eating a pizza, then.”  She then told me I ought to have seen a doctor rather than get on a plane sick, which was sound advice if I’d fancied spending 24 hours in the airport hotel at my own expense because any doctor would have yawned and said “nope, don’t fly” because it’s no skin off his nose.  I then got a bollocking for getting on the plane with “food poisoning” because we might have had to make an emergency landing, and there aren’t many places that an A380 can do that.  That was a good point in general, and an A380 being severely restricted in terms of where it can land in an emergency never occurred to me, but it annoyed me because I obviously didn’t have food poisoning.  Apparently there is no such condition as a stomach upset which can be put on the forms the cabin crew have to fill in every time a passenger gets sick.

As it happened, I ate nothing and drank only water for the rest of the flight and by the time I was in Dubai I felt well enough to eat a little soup.  By the time I caught the next flight and arrived in Lagos, I was feeling fine.  That would not have been the case if I’d had food poisoning.


21 thoughts on “When Food Poisoning Isn’t

  1. My parents called it ‘Kaolin et morph’ though I can’t vouch for the spelling. All I can say is, it worked if you had hippy tummy. If not used for a long time, it was necessary to shake the bottle up to mix the white clay-like sediment with the brown top liquid (if I recall correctly) and the medicine worked pretty much straight away. One’s belly got very warm quickly and you felt a whole lot better.

    As for the ‘flu thing; happily I have only had ‘flu twice and both times I was flat on my back unable to move for a week. So when I used to work and people had day off with, “A touch of ‘flu” they were just swinging the lead. One didn’t get a touch of ‘flu: one got faltered by it.

    Going back to stomach upsets,… sometimes — without trying to be terribly rude here — a good trump can sometimes help sort it out. Oh, I accept on a plane letting rip down below means a lot of people have to share the fun but hey, needs must at times.

    (Small anecdote on this: I knew once a Hungarian countess who escaped Communism and settled in the west to find a good job as a courier for travel companies as she spoke some very useful languages. I accept I am biased here because she was an elegant woman who thought I was good looking, but she told me once of a rich American on a trip behind the iron curtain who wailed he was dying of a heart attack and all sorts of east-European medical services sprang into action. And then, um, he farted…)

  2. Wouldn’t “gastroenteritis” be an acceptable condition for the stewardess to put on the form?

  3. Being a regular traveller to India, this is an occupational hazard, especially given my almost obsessive adoration of the street food there.

    In my experience, I get two types;

    The first is a mild “gippy” stomach which brings with it a keen observation of where the nearest toilet is and a strict adherence to the rule of “never assume it’s just a fart”.

    The second is the more debilitating and I last had this after having to work Australian hours over there a couple of years ago. This meant having to have “dinner” in the mid afternoon and going to bed at 7pm in order to be awake at 2am.

    The Holiday Inn’s 24 hour menu was uninspiring and I’m sure I could hear the microwave “ping” when my ham and cheese panini (all three of which ingredients aren’t exactly Indian) was ready.

    My world then proceeded to fall apart from all orifices about 3 hours later. I even managed a good projectile vomit out of the taxi window at 2.30am on the way to the office. I still put in a full shift at the coal face though and was feeling human enough to have curry for “breakfast” later in the day.

    All of which reminded me that I’d just broken my golden rule of travelling; NEVER eat in the hotel, not even breakfast, as there are rarely any repeat local customers, therefore poor hygienie, quality or service isn’t efficiently punished.

  4. I remember K & M: wonderful stuff.

    But e’en so, dear blogger, I think you’re wrong.

    WKPD: “colloquially referred to as food poisoning … is any illness resulting from the food spoilage of contaminated food, pathogenic bacteria, viruses, or parasites that contaminate food, as well as chemical or natural toxins such as poisonous mushrooms and various species of beans that have not been boiled for at least 10 minutes.”

    You can get food poisoning when nobody else does because the waiter’s shitty thumb went into your soup and nobody else’s. Because you had the only piece of fish or shellfish containing the pathogen, because you were the only diner whose immune system could’t cope, etc, etc.

  5. A380 can land just fine on 45m width runways in an emergency, so there are no shortage of potential diversion locations in most parts of the world. Not necessarily with compatible terminals available but you can’t have everything 🙂

  6. @Tim N,

    I have a different approach to your “starve” the tummy bug. If I feel I need to vomit, but it’s not happening I drink Fanta – any fizzy drink will do, but imho Fanta tastes OK as it comes back up.

    Drink some more Fanta, rinse mouth with water to remove acids. Repeat ad nauseam (ha ha) until flushed out..

    I have had food poisoning – eggs, chocolate soufflé – all others who ate also spent days in bed and in bathroom (where both ends would erupt). Not pleasant.

  7. Yep ‘flu floors you.
    Also on illness hyperbole a common explanation for a racing car drivers poor performance is “fever”.
    Never get told what sort of fever it is though.
    I’m guessing what they really mean is a bit of a sniffle or maybe a tummy ache but to say that would probably seem a bit feeble.
    (I will exempt motorbike racers from this as they seem to front up and produce the goods with bones broken as recently as last week that are now held together with bolts, bits of tape and pain killers)

    Whether other sports suffer unduly from “fevers” I don’t know as I only watch motor racing.

  8. In practice the terms “food poisoning”, “cold”, “flu” and even the “fever” mentioned by “A Rob” are just synonyms for “felt unwell but no way to tell what I actually had without a huge array of expensive medical tests that aren’t worth doing”. They are all just ways to put a label on an unknown bacterial or viral infection that isn’t worth the effort of identifying because it will be gone in a few days anyway. For all the difference that it makes you might as well say that you are suffering from an imbalance of the humours.

  9. Plus if you were to soil yourself on an A380 at least you can use the shower to clean up, I am sure they will allow you to use it even if you ain’t first class. Then you simply just need to use the internal staircase to disembark.

    Here are my bad ones.

    India got first strike in Varanasi train station just as my train arrived, pandemonium and I ended up in fifth class and you couldn’t move between carriages. Looked a bit of an odd ball when I wasn’t in the “toilet”. That hung around for a long time as weeks later I was still suffering in a houseboat in Lake Srinigar. Done the mountain trekking thing, me, four guides and umpteen donkeys. Always struggled with the initial getting out of my tent in the morning bit without shitting myself. I remember throwing a pair of soiled undies into a river and always thought that some lucky dude in Islamabad would find them de-soiled and lay claim to them.

    Thailand, had to check into a US hospital only to discover that my travel insurance had expired the day before. In pain and paying for it, got out a week later and flew straight to oz.

    About this time of the year in Brisbane ate some old Christmas turkey at a mates, three of us went down, we thought it was super hangovers at frist. I had to fly to Melbourne in the middle of it I dont know how I manged to keep my orifices plugged on the flight.

  10. Got real full on food poisoning in Peru once. It resulted in about 4 days of the wife and I taking turns in the toilet of our hotel(s) and a lot of clenched buttocks and praying at the various points where we had to leave the room. Definitely on my list of things to never do again.

    It cleared up just as we left the country except that as we were taking off I got one of those “this is not a fart” messages. Held it in until the fasten seatbelt sign went off then charged into the toilet. Made it without accident but the delay or something made it one of the vilest dumps I have ever smelled. Said toilet then became a place no other passenger was willing to enter for the entire flight. I felt sorry for the trolley dollies who had to hang around in the galley next to it.

    I’ve had a couple of minor instances with shellfish, though. It’s easy to recognize, you feel kind of drugged and then the world falls out of your bottom. Once it’s gone though you’re fine again.

  11. Gotta disagree with the “inevitability” of upset tummy.


    I had as much gyppo-tummy, doses of the trots, chills/mild shivers, etc. as the next man.

    Then I went into the pub trade. I’ve lived out of commercial kitchens every meal of my life since, and haven’t had a crook gut ever again.
    I’ve forgotten what an upset tummy feels like. I’ve forgotten what diarrhoea feels like. I’ve forgotten what “oops, that may not be a fart” feels like.

    Provided I don’t go back to “home-cooked” meals, (or eat from a street stall in anywhere-but-Singapore) I don’t expect to ever again experience an upset stomach.

    Take that!

  12. I’ve had food poisoning once. Dodgy tummy, plenty of times, but proper food poisoning only once.

    I (and my wife) stopped at a poncy cafe in Midhurst, Sussex, for lunch with our 18 mo old daughter. We shared a couple of plates of panini, one of which was tuna melt.

    Wife started feeling rough on drive home (two hours later). I became ill later that night. We were flat out for a week. It’s left me with IBS and a distinctly unhappy digestive tract.

    According to the doc, we were lucky- had our daughter not turned her nose up at the tuna, we may have lost her.

    He diagnosed campylobacter, but admits it may have been something else.

  13. Thanks everyone! I think we’re all in agreement that having the shits and vomitting when travelling, especially on a train or plane, is pretty fucking awful.

    On that subject, this is worth a read.

  14. Just come to the table as it were!

    Salmonella poisoining. Yes, on the fourth day, death didn’t seem a bad option. 4 of us had the last ration of fish in a pink sauce at an outside restaurant on a hot day. 3 went down, the fourth had a sicky feeling for a day (the bastard). Later the chef was discovered to be a carrier.

    It came on after 20 hours. The following day I took my other half to Santander (an hour down the road) for a medical congress. Dropped her off and wnet to the hotel. No room ready. Sat in reception when I suddenly started sweating and feeling pain.

    I got to the toilets in time just as the world fell out of my bottom. Wifey (who has a slower metabolism) got hit at lunchtime when she came back to the hotel.

    The one hour drive back was punctuated by roadside stops to do what one has to do, trousers down and cars roaring past. I only felt embarrased the first time. After, I no longer cared. I lost 5 kilos (and I was slim(mer) then), won the court case for lost expenses, and have the desire NEVER to go through the same thing again.

    On the third day I started hallucinating. The only good part is that it was only one-way not two-way.

    There is no comparison with a one-off tummy ache with vomit of a meal that didn’t settle or a stomach bug. None whatsoever.

  15. Just to add I had an upset stomach in Vietnam a while back, and retired to the hotel which had a very well designed bathroom with a basin right in front of the toilet and clean sheets, bliss!

  16. Funny story Tim, but landing in Lagos would have made me throw up.

    My three years in Lagos was proof that you could get used to anything. By that stage of my assignment I was quite content to go through the airport and get back to my apartment.

  17. Oh, nearly forgot getting Campylobacter from a buffet at a kids’ party at a posh hotel in Hamstead. A week in bed feeling like death.

    Again, proving my rule about not eating in hotels.

    Another good rule for Indian hotels is to check that you have a line of sight from the toilet to the TV or can move a mirror to achieve it. Just in case….

  18. Living as an expat my experience was that when I returned to Aus I would occasionally get a bit of the shits. Nothing major but I always put it down to there being different bacteria in the water. Definitely agree with the “don’t eat don’t shit” theory, had dinner with friends in Phuket years ago and on holiday was the only one who had to hold his own on the tour the next day. If it doesn’t kill you it gives you a story to dine out on!
    By the way have worked in mining for the last 20 years and my experiences of multinationals matches yours, great blog!

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