An Overview of Staphylococcus Aureus Food Poisoning

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Staphylococcal food poisoning occurs when you eat something contaminated with toxins produced by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. This may occur because a preparer did not wash their hands before cooking your meal or you've eaten something that is not cooked after being handled. Staph food poisoning causes significant distressing gastrointestinal symptoms, including significant vomiting and nausea.

Staphylococcal aureus food poisoning is extremely common and several outbreaks have been reported in the United States. However, the actual number of people who get infected each year is unknown because many of these cases go unreported.

Symptoms 

Symptoms of staph food poisoning can include:

  • Explosive vomiting and nausea
  • Fever
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain

Symptoms start within 30 minutes to eight hours of eating the contaminated food and last about one day.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food poisoning symptoms that are considered severe and in need of medical evaluation include:

  • Signs of dehydration
  • Fever above 102 degrees F
  • Frequent vomiting that does not allow you to keep down fluids
  • Diarrhea that lasts for more than three days
  • Blood in your stool

Causes

Staph food poisoning is a foodborne illness that stems from Staph aureus bacteria. Symptoms don't come from the bacteria themselves, but rather from the toxins they release into foods that are left out at room temperature.

The bacteria is typically first introduced to food either from dirty hands, coughing, or sneezing onto foods. If food is left to sit out after it's contaminated, the organism multiplies, resulting in high enough levels of toxins to cause symptoms. As such, foods that aren't cooked after handling (such as cold cuts and baked goods) pose an increased risk of infection if consumed after being mishandled and contaminated.

Staph aureus are often found in meat products, mayonnaise-based salads and sandwiches, cream-filled pastries, and other dairy products. The bacteria can withstand higher salt levels than most other bacteria, so it can also live in cured foods, such as ham.

Although bacteria can be killed during cooking (or re-warming food), toxins cannot as they are resistant to heat. And unfortunately, save for actually seeing any of the above happen during the preparation of your food and taking a pass (or operating on a simple gut feeling that something about a dish isn't right), avoiding such an infection is nearly impossible.

Diagnosis

Most people only begin to suspect staph food poisoning after they learn that other people they dined with also have it. By the time you realize you have the infection, you're likely to be well into suffering the consequences.

While lab testing can detect and confirm the presence of staph bacteria or toxins in vomit, stool, or foods, these tests usually aren't ordered unless there is a current outbreak.

How you feel and your recent dining history should be all that's needed to come to the conclusion that you have food poisoning, and you can usually make that call safely on your own unless your symptoms are severe.

In the latter case, see your doctor. And while related death is very rare, it occurs more often in the elderly, infants, and other individuals who have weakened immune systems, so a medical evaluation in these individuals is also advised.

Treatment

Staph food poisoning can most often be self-treated. This mainly involves staying hydrated, controlling your fever (if any), and waiting things out.

However, if you suspect you have staph food poisoning and are experiencing severe symptoms, a doctor may recommend additional treatments including medication to help ease nausea and vomiting. In some cases, IV fluids may be recommended to relieve dehydration if your case is particularly severe.

The toxins in staph-contaminated foods are not affected by antibiotics, so these drugs are not useful for staph-related food poisoning.

A Word From Verywell

While staph food poisoning can cause severe illness, it's also preventable. Use safe cooking and dining practices. Don’t drink unpasteurized milk, and don’t eat food that has been sitting out at room temperature for more than two hours (when in doubt, just take a pass). Lastly, be sure to always wash your hands frequently.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Food safety. Staphylococcal (staph) food poisoning. Updated August 9, 2018.

  2. Kadariya J, Smith TC, Thapaliya D. Staphylococcus aureus and staphylococcal food-borne disease: an ongoing challenge in public health. Biomed Res Int. 2014:827965. doi:10.1155/2014/827965

  3. Merck Manuals. Staphylococcal food poisoning. Updated June 2019.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Food Poisoning Symptoms.

  5. FoodSafety.gov. Bacteria and viruses. Updated April 12, 2019.

  6. Kadariya J, Smith TC, Thapaliya D. Staphylococcus aureus and staphylococcal food-borne disease: an ongoing challenge in public health. Biomed Res Int. 2014;2014:827965. doi:10.1155/2014/827965

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