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Possible food poisoning on a plane: What is Clostridium perfringens?

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December 06, 2011|By Dalina Castellanos, Los Angeles Times/ For the Booster Shots blog
  • Salmonella bacteria (like these shown growing in a Petri dish) are one common source of foodborne illnesses.
Salmonella bacteria (like these shown growing in a Petri dish) are one common… (Karen Tapia-Andersen /…)

The family of a man who died of a heart attack while aboard a plane this spring has sued the airline, alleging food poisoning and that it allowed the man to travel while notably ill. The family claims in their lawsuit that the man's meal was contaminated with Clostridium perfringens.

It's a less familiar name than the well-known E. coli or Salmonella. So what is Clostridium perfringens?

First, some background: The man, Othon Cortes, and his wife, Raquel, were on a flight from Barcelona, Spain, to New York's JFK Airport when he ate a meal containing chicken. While at JFK, Othon became pale, experienced "sharp stomach cramps" and was suddenly very thirsty, the Miami New Times reported.

Raquel Cortes told the Miami New Times that her husband suffered from nausea and shortness of breath and, eventually, had a heart attack on their flight from New York to their home in Miami.

Clostridium perfringens is a bacterium that causes nearly a million cases of food-borne illness each year in the U.S. (the number of deaths isn't known).

Those infected with the bug usually develop watery diarrhea and abdominal cramps within six to 24 hours. And though the bacterium usually doesn’t cause fever or vomiting, it can cause complications from dehydration, which, according to the Mayo Clinic, include low blood-volume shock, leading to a drop in blood pressure and a drop in the amount of oxygen in the body.

C. perfringens infectionscan be serious, but the bacterium is not the biggest player in food-borne illnesses. The top five deadliest food-borne organisms are salmonella, norovirus, toxoplasma, listeria and Campylobacter, which together account for 88% of food poisoning deaths, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that an estimated 48 million Americans suffer from food poisoning every year. Symptoms, which include diarrhea, abdominal cramps and nausea, emerge after an incubation period of a few hours to days after the tainted food is eaten.

Food-borne illnesses send 128,000 people to the hospital each year and up to 3,000 die from complications, the CDC states. The CDC recommends calling your doctor if diarrhea is followed by a high fever of more than 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit, blood in the stool, prolonged vomiting that prevents keeping liquids down (which can lead to dehydration) and signs of dehydration, including a decrease in urination, a dry mouth and throat and feeling dizzy when standing up.

Dehydration is the most common serious complication, according to Medline Plus, which adds: "Less common but much more serious complications depend on the bacteria ... causing the food poisoning. These may include arthritis, bleeding problems, kidney problems, damage to the nervous system, and swelling or irritation in the tissue around the heart."

To learn more about C. perfringens and other foodborne illnesses, visit the food safety websites mentioned above as well as this one, from the Food and Drug Administration.  

Finally, it's interesting to note that heart attacks can first appear with symptoms similar to that of food poisoning, including nausea and stomach cramps, according to this article at livestrong.com.

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