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Gastrointestinal

Staph aureus food poisoning

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Definition

Staph aureus food poisoning is an illness that results from eating food contaminated with a toxin produced by the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Staphylococcus aureus food poisoning is often caused when a food handler contaminates food products that are served or stored at room- or refrigerator temperature. Common examples of such foods are desserts (especially custards and cream-filled or topped desserts), salads (especially those containing mayonnaise, such as tuna salad, potato salad, and macaroni salad), poultry and other egg products, and casseroles.

The bacteria produce a toxin in the food, which causes most of the symptoms. Risk factors include:

  • Eating food that was prepared by a person with a skin infection (these infections commonly contain Staphylococcus aureus bacteria)
  • Eating food kept at room temperature
  • Eating improperly prepared food
  • Eating the same food as someone who has symptoms

The disease is common in the U.S.

Symptoms

Symptoms usually appear within 1 - 6 hours after eating contaminated food. Usually, symptoms last only 2 days or less. They may include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting for up to 24 hours
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Severe abdominal cramps
  • Abdominal distention
  • Mild fever

Signs and tests

A stool culture (if performed) is positive for Staph aureus.

Treatment

The goal of treatment is to replace fluids and electrolytes (salt and minerals) lost by vomiting or diarrhea. Antidiarrheal medications may be used, but are often not needed.

To avoid dehydration, you or your child should drink water and electrolyte solutions to replace fluids lost by vomiting. A variety of pleasant-tasting electrolyte solutions are available over-the-counter. Solutions to try for children:

  • Pedialyte and Infalyte
  • Popsicles or Jello

People with diarrhea who are unable to take fluids by mouth because of nausea or vomiting may need intravenous fluids. This is true especially for small children.

People taking diuretics ("water pills") may need to stop taking them during the acute episode. Ask your health care provider for instructions.

Expectations (prognosis)

Full recovery is expected. Recovery usually occurs in 24 to 48 hours.

Complications

Dehydration can develop.

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if:

  • Diarrhea contains blood or mucus
  • Diarrhea develops within 1 week of travel outside of the United States, or after a camping trip (the diarrhea may be due to bacteria or parasites that need treatment)
  • You have diarrhea and also experience vomiting episodes, fever, or abdominal cramping
  • Diarrhea is severe, or lasts longer than 2 - 3 days
  • Diarrhea in a child keeps returning, or the child is losing weight
  • The child has signs of dehydration (call immediately)

Prevention

Wash your hands thoroughly before and after all food preparation. Thoroughly wash food preparation implements before using them on other foods. Refrigerate meats and leftovers promptly. Food can become contaminated by juices from poultry and other meats.

References

Pigott DC. Foodborne illness. Emerg Med Clin North Am. 2008;26:475-497.

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