Best offense against salmonella is prevention
By: James Rogers, M.D.
There’s been a lot of news coverage recently on the topic of Salmonella, most of it because of a recent outbreak involving tomatoes. Outbreaks like this make us more aware of food poisoning, but there are certain practices and habits we should all develop in order to avoid contracting Salmonella or other forms of food poisoning every day – whether there is an outbreak or not.
Salmonella are a group of bacteria that live in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals. There are many different types of salmonella bacteria. These bacteria can pass from human or animal feces to soil, vegetation, water or other surfaces during food processing, handling or preparation. This contaminates the foods that the salmonella touches. People eating the contaminated foods are at risk for salmonella poisoning.
It can be difficult to detect foods that harbor salmonella bacteria. Contaminated foods usually look and smell normal. Most often, foods with salmonella are of animal origin – beef, poultry, milk or eggs. Any food, however, can become contaminated. In recent years, outbreaks have been identified with peanut butter, frozen potpies, and most recently tomatoes.
Thorough cooking kills salmonella. The Center for Disease Control, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration all advise that poultry, and meat, including hamburgers, should be well-cooked. Hamburgers should not be pink in the middle and poultry juices should run clear, with an internal temperature of 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Persons should not consume raw or undercooked eggs. Milk and other dairy products should be pasteurized.
Symptoms of salmonella usually include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramping occurring between 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness typically lasts from four to seven days, but it may take a month or more for bowel habits to return to normal. For a healthy person, salmonella is usually not serious, and requires home treatment of rest and increased fluid intake. Sip water or a rehydration drink (such as Lytren, Rehydralyte or Pedialyte). Avoid soda pop and fruit juice as they contain too much sugar and not enough electrolytes that are lost due to the illness.
People at higher risk for developing salmonella that requires treatment from a medical professional include infants, the elderly and persons with impaired immune systems. In these extreme cases, when a salmonella infection becomes severe, the bacteria spread from the intestines to the bloodstream and other body sites. In these instances, antibiotic treatment may be warranted.
In rare cases, salmonella develops into a condition called Reiter’s syndrome. This is characterized by joint pain, eye irritation and painful urination. Reiter’s syndrome can last for months, or even years, and can lead to chronic arthritis.
The CDC monitors the frequency of salmonella infections in the United States. Every year, approximately 40,000 cases are reported. Many milder cases of the illness go undetected, undiagnosed and unreported. It is thought that for every one case of diagnosed salmonella, there are 30 or more cases that go unreported.
Salmonella is diagnosed through a stool sample, which may be followed up by other blood tests to determine the specific type of salmonella bacteria involved. There is no vaccine to prevent salmonella. The best defense is prevention, which includes avoiding raw or undercooked meat and eggs as well as good infection control practices when preparing foods – proper food storage, washing hands, washing surfaces and avoiding cross contamination of foods.
Reptiles, including turtles, are particularly likely to spread salmonella bacteria. It is important to wash your hands thoroughly immediately after touching or holding a reptile or turtle. Have children do the same.
In most cases, salmonella can be resolved with home treatment. But, 400 persons in the U.S. die from salmonella each year. Call your doctor if you experience diarrhea that persists longer than a week, if you are elderly, pregnant or caring for a young infant with salmonella or if you experience signs of dehydration, including dark urine, sunken eyes, dry mouth/tongue, fast breathing and heartbeat, feeling lightheaded and unalert.
Dr. Rogers is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.