It is estimated that one in six Americans will suffer from a case of food poisoning every year. You probably know the common symptoms of bacterial food poisoning, including nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping and diarrhea. You may have heard of common causes, including Botulinum, E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella and norovirus.
One of the most common causes of food poisoning is Staphlococcus aureus, more commonly called “staph”. This is the same bacteria that cause skin infections. Many of us are colonized with staph, meaning we carry it around with us, but have no symptoms. When infected individuals prepare food without proper hand hygiene, it is possible to contaminate the food they are preparing.
When the contaminated food is left at room temperature, the bacteria can grow and secrete a toxin called staph enterotoxin (that is a mouthful). It is well named however, as “entero” refers to the intestine and “toxin” refers to poison, so together it means that enterotoxin is an “intestinal poison”. This poison causes abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Staphylococcal food poisoning occurs most often in foods that require hand preparation such as sandwiches. The toxin is heat stable, meaning reheating to a high temperature may kill the bacteria, but it does not destroy the formed toxin in the food, so consuming food contaminated with staph enterotoxin will still cause illness.
Symptoms of Staph food poisoning usually occur in 2 to 6 hours after eating the contaminated food and include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhea. Depending on how your body reacts to the toxin and the amount of contaminated food that was eaten, symptoms may last from several hours up to 2 or 3 days.
See CDC guidance on Staph.