Staphylococcus aureus is a common bacterium that is often found on people and animals that are completely healthy. However, it is capable of secreting toxins that often cause food poisoning (it is the most common cause of staph infections). It is not a contagious infection; the toxins do not spread from person to person. Symptoms of infection appear quite rapidly, often within 1-6 hours following the consumption of contaminated food but rarely lasting longer than three days. Symptoms include gastrointestinal discomfort: nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping.
Staphylococcal food poisoning caused by eating foods that Staphylococcus aureus has contaminated with toxins. Food usually becomes contaminated due to food workers that carry the bacteria. In the food, the bacterium multiplies, producing the harmful toxins as it grows. It is resistant to both salt and heat and thus cannot be destroyed by cooking. However, foods more commonly contaminated are foods that are prepared by hand and not cooked, for example, sliced meat, pudding, pastries, and sandwiches.
Diagnosis is not typically done by testing, but rather assessment of the patient’s signs and symptoms. However, tests can locate the toxin in vomit and stool samples, and this is done in the case of outbreaks where multiple people are affected. Antibiotics are not useful for treatment. In the majority of cases the victims will recover on their own. Rest and fluids can aid in this process. More severe cases, usually involving elderly persons or children, may require hospitalization and intravenous care and therapy.
Steps which can be taken to prevent infection involve protecting food from contamination by the Staphylococcus bacterium, so that the toxin cannot form. These include:
- Thorough washing of the hands with soap and hot water before the handling and preparation of food
- Food should not be prepared by persons with nose infections, eye infections, or wounds/skin infections on the hands and wrists
- Kitchens and food preparation/serving areas should be kept clean and sanitary
- If food is to be stored for longer than 2 hours, hot food should be kept above 140°F and cold foods kept lower than 40°F
- Cooked food should be stored in containers that are broad but not deep and should be refrigerated as soon as possible