Ptomaine poisoning is an outdated term for food poisoning. It arises from the concept that ptomaines, small broken-down proteins in food, were the culprits behind people getting sick from food. We now know that this condition is actually poisoning by foods that have become infected with several types of bacteria. Food left out, for example chicken salad, can readily develop bacteria.
There are several main bacteria indicated in ptomaine poisoning, when the term is used interchangeably with food poisoning. Examples of bacteria and germs responsible for food poisoning are E. Coli, salmonella, and listeria. Symptoms, treatment and risk depend upon the poisoning agent ingested.
E. Coli is probably the most dangerous bacterium, usually caused by eating improperly cooked ground beef. Even a little bit of pink in a hamburger can mean possible exposure to E. Coli. E. Coli tends to cause watery diarrhea with no fever. In about five percent of cases, significant kidney failure can develop. The risk is higher in children under age five. When this kidney failure develops, it can cause death. Those who recover may require kidney transplantation or regular dialysis while waiting for a transplant. This very serious complication, though rare, is reason enough to use caution when cooking, preparing or serving ground beef.
Ptomaine poisoning caused by salmonella bacteria can make one very ill. Usually, it develops a day to three days after consuming products like poorly cooked eggs, raw eggs, or improperly cooked chicken. Eating cooked poultry that is not properly refrigerated may also result in ingestion of salmonella. Usually, salmonella feels like a very bad stomach flu, with diarrhea and/or vomiting, fever and chills. The condition often resolves in three to five days. Complications arising may be dehydration or high fever, particularly in very young or elderly patients. Some children and older adults may require hospitalization and intravenous fluids to restore health.
Ptomaine poisoning may also be caused by the bacterium, listeria, which results in symptoms similar to those infected with salmonella. However, complications for pregnant women with listeria include spontaneous abortion of unborn children. Young children may also be very susceptible to developing either brain infections or meningitis. Listeria can exist on meat purchased from a deli, like salami or turkey. It is also sometimes found on fruit or vegetables. Lastly, soft cheeses may harbor listeria and should avoided by children and pregnant women.
Ptomaine poisoning, as a term, does not adequately address the complications from various illnesses contracted from food. Some infections, like salmonella may cause severe illness but rarely cause complications. Other infectious agents once called ptomaine poisoning can be significantly worse and life threatening. The medical community seems to want to dismiss this phrase and replace it with labels of various infectious agents, which will then help doctors address specific problems related to the type of bacteria indicated in food poisoning.