Salmonella is the name of the bacterium that causes salmonellosis, a very common type of foodborne illness. The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that each year 1.4 million Americans suffer from the disease; approximately 500 of these are fatal. Severe cases usually affect those with compromised immune systems, elderly persons, and children. Symptoms, which appear between 12-72 hours following exposure, typically last for 4-7 days and include nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, head, muscle, joint, and stomach pain, and diarrhea, which is sometimes bloody. Bowel habits may take several months to return to their normal state.
There are complications which can arise from infection. Serious cases of diarrhea can occur that require hospitalization. Infections can, in some severe instances, spread from the intestines to the bloodstream and affect other areas of the body (septicemia). Unless prompt and proper antibiotic treatment ensues, this can result in death. It is rare for these severe cases to affect adults of good health. Another possible complication of a Salmonella infection is Reiter’s Syndrome, also called reactive arthritis. Symptoms, which occur between 1-3 weeks following the infection, include pain in the joints (particularly fingers, toes, ankles, knees and hips), irritation of the eyes (conjunctivitis), and painful urination. Most recover in less than 1 year, but in some this can lead to chronic arthritis. It should be noted that other foodborne illness which cause gastroenteritis, such as Camplobacter and Shigella, may also cause Reiter’s Syndrome.
Salmonella, which lives in the intestinal tract of humans and animals, is usually contracted by the ingestion of food or drink that has been contaminated, either by animal feces or contact with infected animals. It should be noted that contaminated foods in no way appear, taste, or smell different than non-contaminated foods. Foods of animal origin (beef, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs) are the most likely to be contaminated by Salmonella, however, contamination is not limited to such foods. Salmonella can infect all foods, including vegetables and fruits. Often this is a result of infected persons handling the food without properly washing their hands. Cross contamination is another concern. That is, food carrying the disease is prepared on a surface (a cutting board for example) and thus contaminates that surface. If the surface is not washed, other foods prepared on it will become contaminated.
Pets are also a potential source of infection. The feces (particularly diarrhea) of pets may carry the disease. Therefore, it is important to wash one’s hands after any contact with animal feces (cleaning a rodent’s cage, picking up after the dog, emptying the litter box, etc). Also, reptiles, even healthy ones, frequently carry salmonella on their skin. It is therefore important that hands be washed thoroughly after handling any reptile.
A salmonella infection can be diagnosed by means of specifically requested lab test on a stool sample. Upon diagnosis, further tests may be given to determine the details of the infection, in order to better select the antibiotic for treatment. Specific medical treatment is usually unnecessary because the body can defeat the infection in less than one week. In more severe cases a doctor may decide to prescribe antibiotics. Treatment of dehydration may also be necessary.
One of the keys to preventing outbreaks of foodborne illness is to report cases to local health officials who can work to minimize the spreading of the diseases. Basic steps for reducing the likelihood of contracting a salmonella infection involve good hygiene and basic sanitary measures. Recommendations from the CDC include:
- Thorough cooking of beef, poultry and eggs, which will kill salmonella.
- Do not consume raw eggs or non-pasteurized drinks.
- When eating out, ask that any undercooked food be returned to the kitchen for further cooking.
- Wash hands before and after food preparation, particularly of raw foods of animal origin
- Wash work surfaces and cooking utensils after the preparation of raw foods of animal origin
- When preparing food for elderly persons, infants, or persons with compromised immune systems, use special care to ensure its safety.
- Do not work with raw meats and infants at the same time (cooking and changing diapers for example)
- Breast feeding aids in the prevention of salmonella infections and other health problems in infants. A mother’s milk is their safest food.