When most of us go to the grocery store, we tend not to worry if the food we buy can make us sick. Many shoppers associate contaminated food with developing nations, and don’t consider food poisoning to be all that much of a threat. In fact, about one in six Americans experience food poisoning every single year, a figure that equates to roughly 50 million people.
One of the many culprits behind this problem is salmonella, a type of bacteria than remains a thorn in the side for health officials. Consider that in October 2013, a San Francisco Costo wholesale store recalled 40,000 pounds of rotisserie chicken products over fears of salmonella contamination. Though it continues to sicken many consumers every single year, being aware of how salmonella spreads can help you insulate yourself against this microscopic pest.
How Salmonella Gets Into the Body
Medical science has long known about salmonella, as this bacteria was first identified by an American scientist named David Salmon in the late 1800s (like other types of harmful bacteria, viruses and diseases, salmonella is named after the person who discovered it). While there are numerous strains of salmonella, the bulk of salmonella poisonings can be attributed to a small number of strains, including Salmonella Typhimurium and Salmonella Enteritidis.
There are multiple ways in which salmonella can infect humans. For example, salmonella bacteria can live on the skin of certain reptiles and amphibians, such as snakes, lizards and turtles. If a human picks up or touches an infected animal, the salmonella microbes can easily wind up on the unsuspecting person’s skin. In addition, salmonella can lurk inside uncooked eggs, unpasteurized milk and raw pieces of meat. Fruit and vegetables can also become contaminated by via livestock and wild animals. In many cases, such a scenario occurs after infected animal feces enter streams, wells or other water sources used to nourish fruit and vegetable plants.
Should salmonella-laced food make it into your kitchen, it can further spread across countertops, cutting boards and table surfaces. It can also latch itself onto eating utensils and cutlery, and can even sneak into food mixers, drawers and cabinets. Cross contamination can also occur inside your refrigerator. If not quartered off from surrounding foods, raw meats can provide salmonella with a jumping off point for infecting cooked items and leftovers.
The Signs of Infection
You would be entirely correct in assuming that salmonella poisoning is no walk in the park. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a salmonella infection quickly makes its presence felt, causing several distressing symptoms in a short amount of time. Within 12 to 72 hours, the patient is likely to begin suffering from abdominal cramps, fever and diarrhea. These symptoms generally persist for 4 to 7 days before subsiding. Aside from the aforementioned problems, the patient may also have to contend with the symptoms listed below:
- Muscle pains
- Blood in the stool
Several factors can influence a person’s vulnerability to salmonella infection. Children under the age of five have an elevated risk of salmonella poisoning, contracting this ailment at five times the rate of all other age groups. Other at-risk groups include infants, the elderly and those with immune systems compromised by other diseases (such as HIV/AIDs).
Approximately 40,000 people are diagnosed with salmonella poisoning each year. This number should be taken with a large grain of salt, however, since the true number of cases is likely much higher. Salmonella infections that result in relatively mild symptoms often go undiagnosed or unreported. The CDC estimates that the actual number of salmonella infections may be as much as 30 times higher, which would bring the number of annual cases up to 1.2 million.
Recovery and Preventative Measures
Given how salmonella poisoning can make life miserable, you might be surprised that this infection often resolves itself without medical treatment. Patients are typically urged to consume fluids regularly until they recover, since recurring bouts of diarrhea can put the body at risk of dehydration. Intravenous fluid injections might be necessary if the patient’s infection is particularly severe.
If the salmonella spreads from the intestines into the bloodstream, or if the patient’s immune system is exceptionally weak, the patient may be prescribed antibiotics such as ampicillin. In absence of such circumstances, however, doctors generally do not employ antibiotics.
When it comes to protecting your body against salmonella bacteria, the CDC recommends adhering to the following guidelines:
- Cook poultry, ground beef, and eggs thoroughly. Do not eat or drink foods containing raw eggs, or raw (unpasteurized) milk.
- If you are served undercooked meat, poultry or eggs in a restaurant, don’t hesitate to send it back to the kitchen for further cooking.
- Wash hands, kitchen work surfaces, and utensils with soap and water immediately after they have been in contact with raw meat or poultry.
- Be particularly careful with foods prepared for infants, the elderly, and the immunocompromised.
- Wash hands with soap after handling reptiles, birds, or baby chicks, and after contact with pet feces.
- Avoid direct or even indirect contact between reptiles (turtles, iguanas, other lizards, snakes) and infants or immunocompromised persons.
- Don’t work with raw poultry or meat, and an infant (e.g., feed, change diaper) at the same time.
- Mother’s milk is the safest food for young infants. Breastfeeding prevents salmonellosis and many other health problems.