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Staphylococcal Food Poisoning


Thomas G. Boyce

, MD, MPH, University of North Carolina School of Medicine

Last full review/revision Jun 2019| Content last modified Jun 2019
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Staphylococcal food poisoning results from eating food contaminated with toxins produced by certain types of staphylococci, resulting in diarrhea and vomiting.

  • This disorder can be caused by toxins produced by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria.

  • The toxins are found in contaminated foods.

  • Typical symptoms include severe nausea and vomiting starting about 2 to 8 hours after the contaminated food is eaten.

  • The diagnosis usually is based on the person’s symptoms.

  • Careful food preparation is the best way to prevent food poisoning.

  • Treatment usually involves drinking plenty of fluids.

The staphylococci bacteria Staphylococcus aureus Infections Staphylococcus aureus is the most dangerous of all of the many common staphylococcal bacteria. These gram-positive, sphere-shaped (coccal) bacteria (see figure How Bacteria Shape Up) often cause... read more Staphylococcus aureus Infections grow in food, in which they produce toxins. Thus, staphylococcal food poisoning does not result from ingesting the bacteria but rather from ingesting the toxins made by the bacteria that are already present in the contaminated food. Typical contaminated foods include custard, cream-filled pastry, milk, processed meats, and fish. The risk of an outbreak is high when food workers with skin infections contaminate foods that are undercooked or left at room temperature. Despite contamination, many foods have a normal taste and odor.

Symptoms of Staphylococcal Food Poisoning

Symptoms of staphylococcal food poisoning usually begin abruptly with severe nausea and vomiting starting about 2 to 8 hours after the contaminated food is eaten. Other symptoms may include abdominal cramping, diarrhea, and sometimes headache and fever. Severe fluid and electrolyte Overview of Electrolytes Well over half of the body's weight is made up of water. Doctors think about the body's water as being restricted to various spaces, called fluid compartments. The three main compartments are... read more loss may cause weakness and very low blood pressure (shock Shock Shock is a life-threatening condition in which blood flow to the organs is low, decreasing delivery of oxygen and thus causing organ damage and sometimes death. Blood pressure is usually low... read more ). Symptoms usually last less than 12 hours, and recovery is usually complete.

Occasionally, staphylococcal food poisoning is fatal, especially in the very young, the very old, and people weakened by long-term illness.

Diagnosis of Staphylococcal Food Poisoning

  • A doctor's evaluation

  • Sometimes laboratory tests of food

A more specific diagnosis of staphylococcal food poisoning may be suspected when other people who ate the same food are similarly affected and when the disorder can be traced to a single source of contamination. To confirm the diagnosis, a laboratory must identify staphylococci in the suspected food, but this testing is not usually done because the results do not change treatment.

Prevention of Staphylococcal Food Poisoning

  • Proper food preparation and handling

Careful food preparation can prevent staphylococcal food poisoning. Anyone who has a skin infection should not prepare food for others until the infection heals. Food should be consumed immediately or refrigerated and not kept at room temperature.

Treatment of Staphylococcal Food Poisoning

  • Fluids

  • Sometimes drugs to control nausea and vomiting

  • Sometimes fluids by vein

Treatment of staphylococcal food poisoning usually consists of drinking an adequate amount of fluids. A doctor may give an antinausea drug, either as an injection or as a suppository, to help control severe nausea and vomiting. Sometimes so much fluid is lost that fluids have to be given by vein (intravenously).

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