Staph Food Poisoning

Topic Overview

What is staph food poisoning?

Staph food poisoning is a type of food poisoning caused by infection with the Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) bacterium. The bacteria multiply in foods and produce a toxin even at refrigerator temperatures. The toxins may be present in dangerous amounts in foods that have no signs of spoilage, such as a bad smell.

What causes staph food poisoning?

Most people get staph poisoning by eating contaminated food. The most common reason for contamination is that the food has not been kept hot enough [140°F (60°C) or above] or cold enough [40°F (4°C) or below].

Foods that are associated with staph food poisoning include:

  • Meats.
  • Poultry and egg products.
  • Salads such as egg, tuna, chicken, potato, and macaroni.
  • Bakery products such as cream-filled pastries, cream pies, and chocolate eclairs.
  • Sandwich fillings.
  • Milk and dairy products.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of staph food poisoning include nausea, vomiting, retching, stomach cramping, and diarrhea. In more severe cases, dehydration, headache, muscle cramping, and changes in blood pressure and pulse rate may occur.

Symptoms generally come on quickly. How severe they are depends on your susceptibility to the toxin, how much contaminated food you ate, how much of the toxin you ingested, and your general health. The condition is generally over in 2 days; however, it is not unusual for complete recovery to take 3 days and sometimes longer in severe cases.

How is staph food poisoning diagnosed?

Staph food poisoning is diagnosed based on a medical history and a physical exam. Your health professional will ask you questions about your symptoms, your work and home environments, and foods you have recently eaten and whether other people have become ill from eating the same things. A stool culture and blood tests may be done if your symptoms are severe or to rule out other causes.

How is it treated?

You treat staph food poisoning by managing any complications until it passes. Dehydration caused by diarrhea and vomiting is the most common complication. Do not use medicines, including antibiotics and other treatments, unless your health professional recommends them.

To prevent dehydration, take frequent sips of a rehydration drink (such as Lytren, Pedialyte, or Rehydralyte). Try to drink a cup of water or rehydration drink for each large, loose stool you have. You can also use a sports drink, such as Gatorade. Soda and fruit juices have too much sugar and not enough of the important electrolytes that are lost during diarrhea, and they should not be used to rehydrate.

Try to stick to your normal diet as much as possible. Eating your usual diet will help you to get enough nutrition. Doctors believe that eating a normal diet will also help you feel better faster. But try to avoid foods that are high in fat and sugar. Also avoid spicy foods, alcohol, and coffee for 2 days after all symptoms have disappeared.

How can you prevent staph food poisoning?

The following steps can help prevent staph food poisoning (adapted from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

  • Shop safely. Bag raw meat, poultry, or fish separately from other food items. Drive home immediately after finishing your shopping so that you can store all foods properly.
  • Prepare foods safely. Wash your hands before and after handling food. Also wash them after using the bathroom or changing diapers. Wash fresh fruits and vegetables by rinsing them well with running water. If possible, use two cutting boards—one for fresh produce and the other for raw meat, poultry, and seafood. You can also wash your knives and cutting boards in the dishwasher to disinfect them.
  • Store foods safely. Cook, refrigerate, or freeze meat, poultry, eggs, fish, and ready-to-eat foods within 2 hours. Make sure your refrigerator is set at 40°F (4°C) or colder.
  • Cook foods safely. Use a clean meat thermometer to determine whether foods are cooked to a safe temperature. Reheat leftovers to at least 165°F (74°C). Do not eat undercooked hamburger, and be aware of the risk of food poisoning from raw fish (including sushi), clams, and oysters.
  • Serve foods safely. Keep cooked hot foods hot [140°F (60°C) or above] and cold foods cold [40°F (4°C) or below].
  • Follow labels on food packaging. Food packaging labels provide information about when to use the food and how to store it. Reading food labels and following safety instructions will reduce your chances of becoming ill with food poisoning.
  • When in doubt, throw it out. If you are not sure whether a food is safe, don't eat it. Reheating food that is contaminated will not make it safe. Don't taste suspicious food. It may smell and look fine but still may not be safe to eat.

It is important to pay particular attention to food preparation and storage during warm months when food is often served outside. Bacteria grow faster in warmer weather, so food can spoil more quickly and possibly cause illness. Do not leave food outdoors for more than 1 hour if the temperature is above 90°F (32°C), and never leave it outdoors for more than 2 hours.

Credits

Author Bets Davis, MFA
Editor Maria Essig
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Terrina Vail
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Ruth Schneider, MPH, RD - Diet and Nutrition
Specialist Medical Reviewer W. David Colby IV, MSc, MD, FRCPC - Infectious Disease
Last Updated February 23, 2009

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