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Food Poisoning: Staphylococcus aureus in Food

Left Out, Certain Foods Could Be Breeding Grounds for Food Poisoning

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Updated October 28, 2008

If your child's not feeling so great after the school picnic, chances are that she has Staphylococcus aureus ("Staph") food poisoning.

Symptoms of food-borne Staph don't come from the bacteria themselves, but rather from the toxins they release into foods that are left out at room temperature. These toxins are resistant to heating, so recooking food that has been sitting out will not prevent you from getting Staph food poisoning.

How Staph Spreads

Staph food poisoning is food-borne. It occurs when a person consumes a food that is contaminated with the bacteria or its toxins. Staph aureus can be found in meat products, poultry and egg products, mayonnaise-based salads, cream-filled pastries, and other dairy products. It can also withstand higher salt levels than most other bacteria, so it can also live in cured foods, such as ham.

Staph food poisoning usually occurs as a result of human contamination either from dirty hands or through coughing or sneezing into foods that are ready to eat. After the food is contaminated, it sits out and the organism multiplies, resulting in high enough levels of toxin to cause symptoms.

Who’s at Risk?

In short -- everybody. Staph aureus food poisoning is extremely common and has been reported in several outbreaks in the United States. However, the actual number of people who get infected each year is unknown due to difficulties in diagnosis and poor responses from affected individuals during scientific investigations.

Symptoms of Staph Food Poisoning

Explosive vomiting and nausea, and sometimes diarrhea and severe abdominal pain, starting within 30 minutes to 8 hours of eating the contaminated food and lasting about 1 day.

Diagnosis

Detection of toxin or bacteria in suspect foods, which -- grant you -- is not something the general picnic-goer can do (shy of testing the food, and suffering the consequences, herself).

Treatment

Treatment really just involves staying hydrated, controlling your fever (if any) and waiting things out. The infection usually will resolve without the need for medication. Related death is very rare, but has occurred in the elderly, infants, and other individuals who have weakened immune systems.

Prevention

Use safe cooking and dining practices. Don’t drink unpasteurized milk, and don’t eat food that has been sitting out at room temperature for more than 2 hours (when in doubt, just take a pass). Wash your hands frequently.

Sources:

Le Loir et al. Staphylococcus aureus and food poisoning. Genetics and Molecular Research. 2003; 2(1): 63-76.

Salyers AA and Whitt DD. Bacterial Pathogenesis: A Molecular Approach. ©1994, American Society for Microbiology, Washington, DC. pp. 136-138.

Staphylococcus aureus. USFDA Bad Bug Book. Center for Food Safety and Nutrition.

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