What to Know About Clostridium Perfringens?

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on October 18, 2022
4 min read

Clostridium perfringens is a gram-positive anaerobic bacteria that is a leading cause of food poisoning in the U.S. Studies have linked this bacteria to another life-threatening condition called “gas gangrene.” This article looks at the causes and symptoms of this bacterial infection and how you can prevent it.

Clostridium perfringens is a spore-forming bacteria that can function without oxygen (anaerobic bacteria). These gram-positive bacteria are typically found in human and animal intestines. Bacteria are of two types – gram-positive and gram-negative – based on their characteristics. The cell membrane in gram-positive bacteria is roughly 20 times thicker than that of gram-negative bacteria but can be easily breached. On the other hand, gram-negative bacteria’s cell membrane is tough to break through. This makes gram-positive bacteria more vulnerable to antibiotics and other antibacterial actions.

Clostridium perfringens was first discovered in 1891 during an autopsy by William H. Welch at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The bacteria was initially called Bacillus aerogenes capsulatus, then was renamed Bacillus welchii before finally being given its current name.
It’s linked to other conditions, such as infections in the skin and deeper tissues. This condition is medically known as “clostridial myonecrosis,” more commonly called “gas gangrene.” This can be due to the actions of the bacteria itself or, in some cases, by the action of toxins released by the bacteria.

Clostridium perfringens produce protective spores that cover the bacteria and reduce their vulnerability to external factors. It can multiply rapidly when you store food at temperatures between 40 °F and 140 °F.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are around 1 million cases of food poisoning yearly due to clostridium perfringens. It’s one of the most widely reported causes of food poisoning in the U.S. Among foodborne diseases, it accounts for 5% of all outbreaks, 10% of the total cases, and 4% of all hospitalizations.

The onset of the symptoms is due to the toxins released by the bacteria. Clostridium perfringens contains six major toxins. Once the bacteria enter the digestive tract, they can survive in the acidic environment and release toxins that cause diarrhea. Gas gangrene typically occurs when wounds (especially deep ones) come in contact with foreign objects containing bacteria. When the bacteria comes in contact with tissues, it produces a different toxin that damages the skin and the deep tissues.

The harmful effects of the bacteria manifest primarily due to two reasons – either when large quantities of the bacteria enter the system, multiply and release the toxins in the intestine, or when people eat contaminated food with the toxin already in it.

Eating food infected with the Clostridium perfringens bacteria typically causes stomach cramps and diarrhea within the first 24 hours. Sometimes, diarrhea can cause dehydration. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and fever. The bacteria is not contagious. Symptoms usually take between 12 to 24 hours to manifest and last for a further 24 hours.

Symptoms of gas gangrene infections include redness, swelling, and pain in the infected area of the skin. Sometimes, it can cause fever and chills. Other symptoms include:

  • Edema (swelling due to excess fluid trapped in your body's tissues)
  • Tender skin at the site of infection
  • If the blisters rupture, the fluid contained within them gives out a musty smell
  • Septic shock leading to rapid loss of blood pressure
  • Collection of fluid in the lungs

Clostridium perfringens spreads quickly through undercooked beef and poultry. Other sources include pork, lamb, fish, shrimp, crab, potato salad, and cheese. Studies indicate higher transmission rates during November and December, although outbreaks occur throughout the year. The bacteria is among the top five pathogens responsible for foodborne diseases in the U.S.

The bacteria thrives between 40 °F and 140 °F, and eating meats stored within this temperature range increases the risk of infection. One of the reasons is that the bacteria produce spores, allowing them to multiply rapidly at these temperatures. Studies have shown storing food in the most vulnerable temperature range (between 109 °F and 117 °F) for too long is a major cause of food poisoning.

Most cases of food poisoning occur due to undercooked meat and poultry intake. A vital step to prevent Clostridium perfringens infections is to implement strict food safety protocols that help control the spread of the bacteria to a large extent. Individuals with diabetes and heart disease should seek medical attention swiftly when infected. Other essential measures to prevent the onset and spread of infection due to this bacteria include:

  • When preparing foods that include meat and poultry, cook them to the optimal temperature to prevent bacterial contamination. The optimal temperature for meats like beef, goat, and lamb would be 145 °F, while you can heat chicken, turkey, and other poultry up to 165 °F.
  • If you don’t plan on eating the meat right after it’s cooked, store it either above 140 °F or below 40 °F.
  • You should store leftover meat in the fridge within two hours of preparation or after being removed from storage. If the outside temperature is more than 90 °F, make sure you put the meat back into storage within one hour after taking it out.
  • You don’t need to wait for the food to cool before putting it into cold storage. On the contrary, it’s better to store the leftover meat right away. If possible, keep the meat in smaller containers so that it can cool quickly.
  • When you plan to eat the leftover meat, ensure it’s first heated to at least 165 °F.

Food poisoning caused by the bacteria resolves on its own, while gas gangrene needs treatment. If you undergo septic shock due to gas gangrene, antibiotics like penicillin G and metronidazole help overcome the condition. Treatment also involves removing the affected tissues surgically to avoid potentially fatal consequences. If you have diarrhea, drink more fluids to prevent dehydration till it ceases.