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What Is Staphylococcal Food Poisoning?

Staphylococcal food poisoning is a common, yet distressing, illness caused by toxins produced by Staphylococcus bacteria in improperly stored food. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps, striking swiftly after consumption. Visuals reveal the culprits—often creamy dishes left unrefrigerated. Curious about how to prevent this unsettling experience? Keep reading to uncover crucial safety tips.
Susan Abe
Susan Abe

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 causes abdominal cramping, nausea, and vomiting.
Staphylococcal food poisoning causes abdominal cramping, nausea, and vomiting.

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.

Food poisoning often occurs when food is prepared or handled in a way that's unsanitary, contaminating it with pathogens, such as staphylococcal bacteria, salmonella or E. coli.
Food poisoning often occurs when food is prepared or handled in a way that's unsanitary, contaminating it with pathogens, such as staphylococcal bacteria, salmonella or E. coli.

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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    • Staphylococcal food poisoning causes abdominal cramping, nausea, and vomiting.
      By: Demian
      Staphylococcal food poisoning causes abdominal cramping, nausea, and vomiting.
    • Food poisoning often occurs when food is prepared or handled in a way that's unsanitary, contaminating it with pathogens, such as staphylococcal bacteria, salmonella or E. coli.
      By: malexeum
      Food poisoning often occurs when food is prepared or handled in a way that's unsanitary, contaminating it with pathogens, such as staphylococcal bacteria, salmonella or E. coli.
    • Failing to adequately heat or refrigerate foods can cause food poisoning.
      By: dragon_fang
      Failing to adequately heat or refrigerate foods can cause food poisoning.
    • Vomiting is a common symtom of food poisoning.
      By: Lisa F. Young
      Vomiting is a common symtom of food poisoning.
    • Symptoms of staphylococcal food poisoning may occur between one and six hours after consumption.
      By: snpolus
      Symptoms of staphylococcal food poisoning may occur between one and six hours after consumption.