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What Is Staphylococcal Food Poisoning?

By Susan Abe
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Staphylococcal food poisoning, formally known as staphyloenterotoxicosis or staphyloenterotoxemia, is a usually brief — albeit unpleasant — disease caused by ingestion of food contaminated by bacteria from the staphylococcal family, usually Staphylococcus aureus. This bacteria commonly colonizes up to a quarter of the population's ear, nose, throat and skin areas without causing disease to the carriers. When ingested in foods susceptible to colonization, S. aureus produces toxins as a byproduct of its collective metabolism. These toxins are what result in the characteristic symptoms of staphylococcal food poisoning: sometimes severe abdominal cramping, severe nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms of staphylococcal food poisoning usually occur soon after ingestion of the contaminated food, between one and six hours, although this time frame depends upon the age, weight, appetite and overall health of the sufferer.

Although often clustered in outbreaks, staphylococcal food poisoning is not contagious and cannot be passed from one individual to another. The reason for an epidemiological clustering of food poisoning events is the sharing or common source of contaminated food among a group of people. This rapid onset of staphylococcal food poisoning often aids investigating health departments in the identification of the source. The usual course of the disease is also rapid and symptoms generally resolve within one to three days as long as complications do not occur. Antibiotics are not used in the treatment of staphylococcal food poisoning; however, symptoms of dehydration are sometimes treated with fluid replacement.

Staphylococcal food poisoning is usually initiated when a food preparer inadvertently contaminates food during preparation. If the resulting dish is not then refrigerated to at least 40°F (about 4.4°C) for cold foods or heated to at least 140°F (about 60°C) for hot foods, the S. aureus bacteria can multiply rapidly. Contaminated food cannot be identified by any visual inspection or by any unusual odor. Unfortunately, the only non-laboratory sign that the food is contaminated will be the onset of food poisoning symptoms after ingestion. Thus, frequent hand washing and maintaining correct temperatures for foods is paramount in preventing an episode of staphylococcal food poisoning.

Staphylococcus is a heat-resistant and a salt-resistant bacterium, hence, the common association of ham with food poisoning. Other foods frequently found to be a source of staphylococcus food poisoning can easily be remembered by considering usual "picnic" foods: sandwiches, meat salads, chicken, potato salads, puddings and some pastries.

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