Staphylococcus Aureus Food Poisoning

Written by Lydia Krause
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What is Staphylococcus aureus Food Poisoning?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Staphylococcus aureus is a common bacterium found in the nose and on the skin of about 25 percent of healthy people and animals. It is a common cause of food poisoning; in fact, it is capable of making seven different toxins that frequently cause food poisoning. It is most commonly transferred to food products such as milk and cheese through contact with contaminated food workers. (CDC, 2006)

Symptoms of Staphylococcus aureus food poisoning (SFP) include diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. They are usually not life threatening. Most cases of SFP do not require treatment because the disease will pass on its own. Most people get over the food poisoning in about two days. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), SFP related deaths are very rare. However, there is increased risk for this complication among the elderly, small children, and people with weakened immune systems. (FDA, 2012)

Causes for Staphylococcus aureus Food Poisoning

SFP is caused by contaminated food products. These bacteria have a high salt tolerance, and as such can grow in ham and other meats, as well as in dairy products. Additionally, the bacteria are heat resistant, and cannot be destroyed through cooking. Once food has been contaminated, bacteria begin to multiply. The most common causes of SFP include contaminated milk or cheeses, or through contact with food workers who carry the bacteria. Foods that required a lot of handling and that are stored at room temperature are frequently involved with this type of food poisoning, including:

  • sandwiches
  • puddings
  • cold salads, such as tuna, chicken, macaroni or ham salad
  • sliced deli meats
  • cream-filled pastries

Symptoms of Staphylococcus Aureus FoodPoisoning

SFP causes symptoms similar to a severe case of gastroenteritis (inflammation of the digestive tract). Symptoms may appear rapidly, sometimes in as little as 30 minutes. However, it typically takes up to six hours for symptoms to manifest. (CDC, 2006)

Symptoms of SFP include:

  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • nausea
  • abdominal cramping

Illness is generally mild, and most people recover within one to three days.

Diagnosis of Staphylococcus Aureus Food Poisoning

In most cases, SFP does not require medical attention, and often clears up with rest and fluids. However, contact your doctor if illness lasts longer than three days, or you are unable to drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration.

Your doctor can diagnose this illness with a physical examination and a review of your symptoms. They may also ask questions about recent activities or things you may have eaten. If symptoms are severe, your doctor may order blood tests or a stool culture. These tests can help determine if the S. aureus bacterium is present, and may also help your doctor rule out other potential causes.

Treatment of Staphylococcus Aureus Poisoning

SFP generally lasts for a day or two. Medical intervention is often unnecessary, as this illness generally disappears on its own. Treatment typically involves rest and increased fluid intake.

People who have underlying health conditions or situations may need medical help.

Underlying conditions or situations where SFP may be dangerous include:

  • acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)—SFP can weaken the immune system further exposing to more complications
  • young children, babies, or the elderly—diarrhea is capable of causing dehydration and can be fatal

Medical help for SFP include:

  • administering intravenous liquids (to replace fluids)
  • placing patients under hospital observation in severe cases (to spot complications)

Outlook of Staphylococcus Aureus Food Poisoning

People who contract SFP but who are otherwise healthy can expect no lasting effects after the bacteria clear the body. However, children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems may experience severe dehydration that requires treatment in a hospital. SFP can be fatal among these populations. However, prompt medical treatment increases their chances of making a full recovery.

Prevention of Staphylococcus Aureus Food Poisoning

To prevent food poisoning and the spread of bacteria:

  • avoid unpasteurized milk
  • wash hands and fingernails thoroughly before cooking, eating, or serving food
  • maintain clean and sanitary surfaces for food preparation
  • store hot foods at temperatures over 140 degrees Fahrenheit and cold foods under 40 degrees Fahrenheit
  • do not prepare food for others if you have wounds or sores on your hands and/or wrists
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