Clostridium perfringens is a bacterium commonly found in the intestines of humans and animals and in the environment in soil, sewage, or dust.
A person can become infected with Clostridium perfringens from eating contaminated food. Once in the intestines, these bacteria produce toxins. It is the toxins that cause human illness.
What causes Clostridium perfringens food poisoning? How is it spread?
You can become infected with Clostridium perfringens by eating contaminated food. Food becomes contaminated with this bacterium from the environment – it is found in soil, sewage or dust. Contaminated food typically needs to have large numbers of bacteria present to cause illness.
The bacteria grow at temperatures from 20°C to 60°C (68°F to 140°F). At this temperature range, a large number of bacteria can develop, which in turn can cause illness. This means slowly cooked foods and improperly stored, cooled or reheated foods are more likely to cause illness.
When the bacteria reach the intestines, they produce toxins. It is the toxins that cause a person to become sick.
Outbreaks often happen in institutions, including hospitals, cafeterias, prisons, catering firms, schools and long-term care facilities. In these institutions, large amounts of food may be prepared in advance and kept warm (20°C to 60°C) until meal time. This allows the bacteria to multiply.
Clostridium perfringens does not spread from person to person.
What are the symptoms of illness caused by Clostridium perfringens?
Like other food-borne illnesses, the symptoms of Clostridium perfringens infection mainly involve the gut. These symptoms can include:
- abdominal bloating, pain and cramps
- increased gas
- diarrhea (profuse and watery)
- loss of appetite and weight loss
- muscle aches
Infection with Clostridium perfringens does not generally cause vomiting or fever.
How long do the symptoms last?
Symptoms of Clostridium perfringens infection typically occur 10 to 12 hours after exposure to the bacteria, but may occur as early as 6 hours or as long as 24 hours after exposure. Symptoms generally last up to 24 hours, but can last as long as 1 to 2 weeks.
How long are people infectious?
Clostridium perfringens infection is not spread from person to person.
Are there certain foods that increase the risk of getting sick with Clostridium perfringens?
Eating food that has been slowly cooked or improperly cooled, stored or reheated increases the risk of infection.
Foods high in protein or starch pose greater risk. Foods associated with Clostridium perfringens infection, include:
- thick soups
- raw meat, poultry and beef
- meat products
- dried or pre-cooked foods
- cooked beans
- meat pies
Normal cooking temperatures do not kill Clostridium perfringens spores, which is why it is so important that foods are properly stored, cooled and reheated.
Are certain people more likely than others to get sick from Clostridium perfringens?
Anyone can get sick from Clostridium perfringens. However, the elderly, young children and people with weakened immune systems are at a greater risk of becoming sick.
Is Clostridium perfringens dangerous? Is it more dangerous for certain people?
Most people will completely recover from infection with Clostridium perfringens within 24 hours, but complications such as dehydration can occur in rare cases. The elderly and young children are more likely to develop complications.
How are people diagnosed and treated for Clostridium perfringens infection?
Clostridium perfringens infection is diagnosed by performing laboratory tests on the stools of potentially infected people.
Most people recover from Clostridium perfringens infection without treatment.
Those suffering from illness should drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration – a possible serious health effect of a food-borne illness. The most helpful fluids for protecting against dehydration are oral rehydration fluids. These products are sold as pre-mixed fluids and are commonly found in drug stores. Other drinks that do not contain caffeine or alcohol can also help with mild dehydration; however, these drinks may not replace the nutrients and minerals lost during illness.
Young children, the elderly and people with other illnesses are at greatest risk for dehydration. Symptoms of dehydration in adults and children include a decrease in urination, a dry mouth and throat and dizziness upon standing. A dehydrated child may cry with few or no tears and be unusually sleepy or fussy. Severe dehydration can be serious and the ill person may require rehydration in a hospital. If you think you or someone under your care is dehydrated, contact your healthcare provider.
How can Clostridium perfringens infections be prevented?
Proper hygiene and safe food handling and preparation practices are key to preventing the spread of all food-borne illnesses, including Clostridium perfringens infection.
Contaminated food may look and smell normal.
The following tips will help you reduce your risk of infection with Clostridium perfringens or other food-borne illnesses:
- Thoroughly cook all food to the appropriate cooking temperature. Use a digital food thermometer.
- Keep cold foods cold at or below 4°C (40°F) and keep hot foods hot at or above 60°C (140°F).
- Refrigerate or freeze perishable food within two hours of cooking.
- Divide leftovers into smaller amounts and keep uncovered to allow for faster cooling in the refrigerator.
- Freeze or consume leftovers within four days of cooking. Always reheat leftovers until steaming hot before eating.
- Keep refrigerators clean and at a temperature below 4ºC, or 40º F. Install a thermometer in your fridge to be sure.
- Do not overstock your refrigerator. This will prevent the circulation of cool air.
Does the Public Health Agency of Canada keep track of Clostridium perfringens infections across the country?
Clostridium perfringens infections are not tracked in Canada. This is because symptoms of illness are typically mild and last for less than one day. People experiencing this illness are unlikely to seek medical attention and so are not reported or captured by surveillance systems.
Are Clostridium perfringens outbreaks common in Canada?
Yes, Clostridium perfringens outbreaks are common in Canada. Outbreaks most frequently occur in a local setting and have occurred at community events and institutions, including hospitals, cafeterias, catering firms, and long-term care facilities.
A case refers to illness in one person whereas an outbreak refers to two or more people linked by a common exposure within a specific time frame.
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