What is Staphylococcus aureus food poisoning?

Staphylococcus aureus is a common bacterium found in the nose and on the skin of about 25 percent of healthy people and animals. S. aureus is capable of making seven different toxins and is often the cause of food poisoning.

It is most commonly transferred to food products like milk and cheese through contact with food workers that carry S. aureus.

S. aureus food poisoning (SFP) is usually not life-threatening. Most cases of SFP do not require treatment because the condition will pass on its own. Most people get over food poisoning in about two days.

SFP causes symptoms similar to a severe case of gastroenteritis, or inflammation of the digestive tract. Symptoms may appear rapidly, sometimes in as little as 30 minutes after you’ve eaten contaminated food. But it typically takes up to six hours for symptoms to develop.

Symptoms of SFP include:

  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • nausea
  • abdominal cramping

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

SFP is caused by contaminated food products. S. aureus has a high salt tolerance, and can grow in ham and other meats, and in dairy products. The toxins that the bacteria produce are also heat resistant and cannot be destroyed through cooking.

Once food has been contaminated, bacteria begin to multiply. Food products most commonly associated with SFP are milk and cheeses. And the most common cause of contamination is through contact with food workers who carry the bacteria.

Foods that require a lot of handling and are stored at room temperature are often involved with SPF. These include:

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

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

Your doctor can diagnose SFP with a physical examination and a review of your symptoms. They may also ask questions about recent activities and things you 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.

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. But some people may need medical help.

SFP may be dangerous in young children, babies, older adults, and people who have HIV.

Because the most common complication of SFP is dehydration, treatment administering intravenous liquids may be required. In severe cases, you may be hospitalized for observation in order to prevent complications.

People who contract SFP, but are otherwise healthy, usually don’t have lasting effects after the bacteria clear the body.

However, children, older adults, and those with weakened immune systems may experience severe dehydration that requires treatment in a hospital. SFP can be fatal among these people. Prompt medical treatment increases their chances of making a full recovery.

To prevent food poisoning and the spread of bacteria, take the following precautions:

  • 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˚F (60˚C) and cold foods under 40˚F (4˚C)
  • do not prepare food for others if you have wounds or sores on your hands or wrists