Stock photo of leftovers in a polystyrene container.
Enlarge / A metal ladle is used to serve takeout Chinese food from a plastic container, Lafayette, California, December 25, 2021.

Medical experts are calling out a rotten bunch of news articles that wrongly claimed spoiled Chinese food caused a teen to develop a life-threatening infection within hours, which led to the amputation of both his legs below the knees.

The 19-year-old male was hospitalized with a rare and extremely severe case of meningococcal disease, which was caused by a blood infection with a bacterium. The incubation period for the bacterium is longer than just a few hours.

Meningitidis can colonize the noses and throats of 10% of people. It spreads through very close contact and directly swaps saliva, like through coughing, kissing, and living in close quarters. Many colleges and universities require students to get meningococcal vaccines before they attend. There has never been a documented case of N. meningitidis spreading via food.

If you didn't read the news articles that said that the forgotten takeout in the back of the fridge could kill you in a matter of hours, you might not know that. The warning was likely amplified by Chubbyemu, who posted a lengthy dramatization of the case that has been viewed 1.5 million times.

The case record of the man was published in The New England Journal of Medicine more than a year ago. The case records of the Massachusetts General Hospital are the subject of a series of articles in NEJM. The articles lay out how a particular case was handled, starting with how a patient first presented to doctors and what medical history they provided, then going through the tests, steps, and decisions the attending doctors took. The final diagnosis, treatment, and the patient's outcome are what the articles end with.


Red herring

A 19-year-old male was admitted to the intensive care unit because of shock, multiple organ failure, and a rash. The start of the article mentioned that the teen had reported eating leftovers from a restaurant about 20 hours before he was admitted to the hospital. He reported nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain after the meal. The symptoms were followed by chills, generalized weakness, worsening diffuse muscle pain, chest pain, shortness of breath, headaches, neck stiffness, and blurry vision. A friend of the patient had also eaten the leftovers and vomited but felt fine, according to the medical history.

He smoked two packs of cigarettes a week, smoked marijuana daily, used a cough-Suppressant and antihistamine recreationally, and had intermittent ear infections as a child. He lived in northern New England, but in the days before his illness, he stayed with a friend at the beach and a music venue.

The leftovers were not linked to his illness, so the article never mentioned them again. The doctors dismissed the lo mein as a red herring, according to the editor and director of the clinical microbiology laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Dr. Rosenberg expressed his disappointment that news stories had linked the teen's case to leftover food.

The doctors on the case never thought that spoiled food caused the illness. There were more media outlets that reported on this than I can count.



There is no history in the medical literature of this kind ofbacteria being transmitted.

In a debunking article by Everyday Health, UNC infectious disease expert Joseph Duncan noted that there has never been a documented case of N. meningitidis. The patient could have had two problems, one of which was the N. meningitidis, according to Dr. Duncan. The serious condition that led to his amputation was unrelated to the food.

The teen was diagnosed with meningococcemia in the intensive care unit. This is a rare and severe side effect of a blood infection by N. meningitidis. The condition is caused by a maladaptive inflammatory response to a systemic infection, which causes blood clot to form throughout the body, blood vessels in the skin to collapse, and tissue to die. The teen was in the intensive care unit for over a month. He had a pacemaker and was intubated. He had gangrene on his arms and legs, which resulted in amputations of both legs below the knees, as well as parts of all 10 fingers.

The doctors noted that he wasn't up to date on his meningococcal vaccine. He regained organ function after he was discharged from the hospital.