Nearly 17 million people suffer from stomach upsets in the UK every year, leading to about 11 million lost working days, according to research published last week by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

The study, led by the University of Manchester, looked at the impact of all cases of infectious intestinal disease (IID), not just those linked to food, on the UK population. IID is typically vomiting or diarrhea, or a combination of the two.

In comparison with a similar study carried out in England in the mid 1990s, the findings show the rate of IID in England is now 43 percent higher.

The research also found:

There are up to 17 million cases of infectious intestinal disease annually in the UK, or about one case for every four people. 

About half of those who get sick take time off from work or school, which represents nearly 19 million days lost – more than 11 million of these were in people of working age.

For every case of IID recorded in national surveillance there are another 147, because only a fraction of cases are reported to health-care services and many people recover without seeking medical help.

Norovirus was the most common cause of intestinal infections in the UK. FSA said that while many norovirus infections are spread person-to-person, it can be spread via food and is included in the Agency’s Foodborne Disease Strategy 2010-2015.

Campylobacter, estimated to cause about 500,000 cases of illness in the UK annually, was the most common cause of bacterial infection. Recent FSA tests detected Campylobacter on two thirds of retail chicken samples.

“The study shows the FSA is correct to make Campylobacter a key priority in its strategic plan,” said Andrew Wadge, chief scientist at the FSA, ini a news release. “We know that levels of Campylobacter on chicken are far too high in the UK, which is why we are working closely with the food industry to bring these levels down.”

Wadge said FSA is also funding research on norovirus.

Because a large proportion of the intestinal illnesses reported can be prevented by good hygiene, Wadge said the FSA’s advice on preparation and handling of food can help to minimise the risk from bacteria and viruses linked to food.

University of Manchester Professor Sarah O’Brien, the study’s lead researcher, said, ‘It’s easy to dismiss diarrhea and vomiting as a trivial illness, but this study reinforces just how many people’s lives are affected, and shows the impact it can have on health services and the wider economy.”

She added that the research confirms that “public health policy should continue to be directed at preventing diarrhea and vomiting by promoting good personal and food hygiene.”

Official statistics only record a fraction of IID cases reported to healthcare services and many cases also go unreported as people recover without seeking medical help.


The  FSA said the study’s findings may help reduce levels of IID in the UK. They will also be used to monitor the patterns of IID in the population, identify the microorganisms of greatest significance to public health, and target interventions for reducing these germs in the food chain.

A copy of the full report can be found here.