Staphylococcal enterotoxin B (SEB) is a harmful substances, called a toxin, produced by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus . It is a common contributor to food poisoning in humans. The bacteria grow and produce toxins in unrefrigerated meats, dairy, and bakery products. Typically, food poisoning due to SEB occurs in clusters because of a common food source (in settings such as a church picnic or passengers on an airliner eating the same contaminated food).
Symptoms of SEB exposure are similar to that of the flu. They can include sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, sore throat and muscle pain.
Additional symptoms are specific to the way that SEB enters the body. If the toxin comes into contact with the eyes, irritation, redness and facial swelling may occur. People who have ingested (swallowed) SEB typically experience symptoms common to food poisoning, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. If SEB is inhaled into the lungs, symptoms include a dry cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain. In severe cases, there may be a build up of fluid in the lungs. The symptoms associated with exposure to SEB through the air might distinguish a biological attack from a natural occurrence, because it would be so rare for the toxin to be inhaled naturally.
Following exposure to inhaled SEB, about 4 out of 5 people get sick. A fever tends to last 2-5 days; coughing may last up to 4 weeks. SEB is rarely life threatening, though a significant exposure could possibly lead to death.
After swallowing SEB, symptoms would be expected to show up 4-10 hours later. After breathing it in, symptoms usually appear 3-12 hours later.
People can be exposed to SEB by either eating or drinking it or by breathing it in. In a biological attack, the toxin could be spread in food, water, or as an aerosol (vapor). SEB is not spread from one person to another.
SEB exposure is generally determined from a patient's symptoms, though lab tests may show the toxin in the blood, urine, or nasal swabs for a short time following exposure.
People exposed to SEB usually get better on their own. The only available treatment is medical care to ease the symptoms. Antibiotics are of no benefit. Making sure patients get plenty of fluids is important. In very severe cases, a breathing machine may be necessary.
SEB can be destroyed by heating food and water to 100°C (212°F) for several minutes. Soap and water is also recommended for decontamination. Contaminated foods should be discarded.
There is currently no human vaccine available to protect against SEB exposure. Protective masks would be effective in protecting emergency personnel who have been alerted to the possibility of SEB in the air.
SEB has also been produced by some countries as a biological weapon. SEB can disable people who are exposed to it for several weeks, but it is rarely deadly.
Many federal, State, and City agencies-including the New York City Health Department has been working together for several years to prepare for the detection and response to a bioterrorist event in New York City. In cooperation with other emergency response agencies, the New York City Health Department has set in place systems that improve our ability to detect and respond to public health emergencies caused by the intentional release of a biological agent.
Last Updated: December 2011