Food Recall Resource

Staphylococcus: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

Unlike other foodborne illnesses, Staphylococcus aureus food poisoning lasts a shorter period of time and is quite unlikely to cause serious outcomes.

Staphylococcal food poisoning, or simply Staph food poisoning, is a foodborne illness caused by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. It causes diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps and other symptoms similar to those of severe gastroenteritis. It is usually non-serious and the symptoms resolve within two days.

Staphylococcus is a genus of bacteria that live on the skin and in the nose of humans and some animals. In healthy people, these bacteria rarely cause an infection. However, in some people, they produce toxins that can lead to stomach problems, skin infections, folliculitis, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, bone infections, heart infections etc.

Several species of Staphylococcus may cause infections at various sites in humans, including:

Staphylococcus epididermis

  1. saprophyticus
  2. lugdunensis
  3. haemolyticus
  4. pyogens
  5. capitis
  6. warneri
  7. hominis

Anyone can have Staphylococcus infection; however, the risk is higher in those with the following conditions:

  • Weakened immune systems
  • Long-term health conditions such as diabetes, cancer, vascular disease, eczema, and lung disease
  • After a major surgery
  • Use of catheters
  • Newborns

Signs and Symptoms of Staphylococcus Aureus Food Poisoning

The signs and symptoms of food poisoning due to Staphylococcus aureus develop within 30 minutes to 8 hours after consuming contaminated food or drink. These include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Excess saliva formation
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Decreased appetite
  • Low blood pressure

In most people, the symptoms are mild and do not require any specific treatment. With supportive treatments, such as proper hydration and rest, they usually go away on their own within a few days.

Causes of Staphylococcus Aureus Food Poisoning

Consuming contaminated food products is the biggest cause of Staph food poisoning. Milk and dairy products, poultry and egg products, and meats including ham are most likely to support the growth of Staphylococcus aureus.

Once in the food products, the bacteria grow rapidly and start producing toxins. Interestingly, Staph-contaminated foods may not have an offensive odor or abnormal appearance. Even worse, you may be able to kill the bacteria with heat, but their toxins can survive high temperatures and lead to food poisoning.

Consuming foods that are stored at room temperature after handling such as sandwiches, puddings, sliced deli meats, and pastries significantly increase the risk of contracting the illness.

Staphylococcus aureus Treatment

Most people with Staph food poisoning recover within a day or two without any specific treatment. Treatments are typically symptomatic and aim at restoring the fluid and electrolyte balance in the body.

If you cannot drink fluids probably due to severe vomiting or the symptoms are very severe, your doctor may decide to administer fluids through a vein. In addition, they may also prescribe medications to control fever and reduce nausea/vomiting.

Antibiotics are not useful because they may be able to kill bacteria but cannot destroy the toxins produced by them.


Complications from Staph food poisoning are extremely rare due to the self-limiting nature of the illness. In some patients, it may cause severe dehydration, which can possibly lead to shock and even death.

Therefore, watch out for the warning signs of severe dehydration, such as –

  • Producing little or no urine
  • Rapid breathing
  • Extremely dry skin
  • Fast heart rate
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Sunken eyes
  • Excessive tiredness

Symptoms of dehydration in young children include –

  • Too little saliva in the mouth
  • Few or no tears when the baby cries
  • Dry diapers for approximately three hours, which indicates the absence of urination
  • Sunken eyes
  • Increased irritability
  • Extreme sleepiness


  • Do not drink untreated milk.
  • Thoroughly wash hands and fingernails using soap and water before eating, handling, and serving food.
  • Avoid preparing or serving food if you have – an infection of the nose or eye and wounds/skin lesions on your hands or wrists. If you have to do, wear protective gloves and change them frequently.
  • Maintain clean surfaces in the kitchens and food-serving areas.
  • Store foods either at temperatures more than 140˚F or less than 40˚F depending on the type of food. This is critically important because when you store perishable foods at temperatures between 40°F and 140°F (the “Danger Zone”), most of them will likely catch support bacterial growth.

Staphylococcus aureus: Top Interesting Facts

  • An infected food handler is the most likely cause of a Staphylococcus outbreak. In fact, more than 40 percent of foodborne outbreaks that occurred between 1975 and 1998 in the United States had a link with the hands of food handlers.
  • Approximately 30 percent of people in the US have Staphylococcus bacteria that are sensitive to antibiotics. On the other hand, nearly 1.5 percent have antibiotic-resistant Staph in their body.
  • Retail pork products collected from Iowa, Minnesota and New Jersey apparently contain the most number of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, according to a 2012 study published in the journal PLoS One.
  • The greater the number of handling during manufacture, the greater is the risk of Staph contamination.
  • Hand washing and using gloves should not be considered equivalent. If you do not wash your hands and use gloves, the warm environment due to the gloves can actually promote bacterial growth on the hands.
  • The occurrence of MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a tougher-to-treat strain of Staph, in foodborne disease is still largely unknown.
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