Every year, at least one million people in the U.S. become infected with salmonellosis, the disease caused by the Salmonella enterica bacteria. It is an unpleasant infection that results in around four to seven days of pain, fever, and bowel discomfort, and about 450 deaths annually. Fortunately, as a form of food poisoning, salmonella is an avoidable ailment provided that people take proper precautions.
What is Salmonella?
The Salmonella enterica is a rod-shaped (picture a Styrofoam peanut!) bacterium that has poultry, small rodents, such as mice or hamsters, reptiles, and humans, as its preferred hosts. The bacteria is spread through fecal matter, which means that most cases of infection result from consuming or handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, fruits, or vegetables without properly washing oneself before and after. Infected chickens can sometimes pass on the infection to their offspring before the shell forms around the embryo. These infected eggs can also pass on the bacteria if they are used in, for instance, homemade mayonnaise.
Symptoms of Salmonella Poisoning
When it infects the body, salmonella bacteria will enter the intestinal wall and cause a variety of symptoms both from the bacteria’s obstruction of normal biological activities and the body’s immune responses. The symptoms of salmonella poisoning appear approximately 12 to 17 hours after infection and include the following:
- Abdominal cramps
- Blood in the stool
For clarification, these are the symptoms associated with a Salmonella enterica infection—the type that causes food poisoning. There is a separate variety of salmonella that causes typhoid fever which, fortunately, people are now immunized against but remains prevalent in the developing world.
Children, adults over 65-years-old, people with compromised immune systems, and those with subdued stomach acid (from, for instance, taking antacids)—suffer salmonella poisoning more severely. Generally, infections last around a week, but lingering bowel symptoms can persist for several months as your body clears up traces of the bacteria. Although about a million cases occur each year in the U.S. alone, slightly over a tenth end up warranting hospitalization—usually as a result of dehydration from diarrhea.
If the bacterium leaves the intestines, and manages to enter the blood stream, it can spread to other systems in the body and cause potentially deadly complications—if not treated quickly with an antibiotic series. If you currently have salmonella and feel your symptoms are getting worse, seek a doctor immediately.
How to Prevent Salmonella Poisoning
As a form of food poisoning, salmonella infection can be largely prevented by following simple sanitation measures. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap after:
- Using the washroom
- Changing a diaper
- Handling raw meat or poultry
- Cleaning up after your pet
These are just a few basic measures that will prevent the bacteria from getting from your hands to your mouth.
The increasing popularity of backyard chicken coops has recently led to a small outbreak—approximately 181 cases—of salmonella across 40 states. In many cases, patients reported hugging or engaging in similar activities with the chickens, which some families view as pets. A CDC veterinarian has stated that “We do not recommend snuggling or kissing the birds or touching them to your mouth, because that is certainly one way people become infected with salmonella.”
The same advice also applies to reptiles, since they are more common carriers overall, albeit less involved in the food supply. If you have a small child, I’d recommend not getting a reptile as a pet.
As a food-borne illness, salmonella can be spread by cooking if the appropriate cross-contamination protections aren’t observed. Raw meat and poultry should be stored separate from other food in the refrigerator, and raw meat and fruits or vegetables should not be cut on the same cutting board. Always wash a plate that has held raw meat before putting anything else on it.
Lastly, try to avoid consuming unpasteurized milk or food that has raw egg in it. This includes unbaked cookie dough, eggnog, and certain forms of homemade ice cream, mayonnaise, and hollandaise sauce.
Treatment for Salmonella Poisoning
Salmonella is not normally treated directly. While antibiotics can help and are often essential if the bacterium enters the bloodstream, they are either ineffective or counter-productive if taken beforehand. Antibiotics taken during a normal infection, where the bacteria is in the intestinal wall, will not reach the salmonella and may end up killing off the “good” bacteria in your gut that would otherwise serve as a barrier.
As a result of this, treatment for salmonella usually involves methods to relieve the food poisoning symptoms and prevent complications. Since the most dangerous symptom is the diarrhea and potential for dehydration, salmonella treatment is mostly staying hydrated with water and sucking on ice chips.
If the cramping and diarrhea becomes too severe, an anti-diarrhea medication should be used for relief. Keep in mind, however, that since the bacteria is removed from your system through a bowel movement—your symptoms may end up lasting longer as a result of the medicine.
If You Have Salmonella, Avoid Spreading It
If you are currently infected with salmonella, it is important to take steps to avoid infecting those around you. Fortunately, this mainly involves washing your hands thoroughly and not preparing food or pouring drinks for others until your infection clears up.
While an unpleasant experience, salmonella poisoning is rarely life threatening—the annual deaths in the U.S. make up less than half a percent of all cases. Simply wash your hands regularly, avoid cross-contamination when preparing food and don’t eat unpasteurized dairy products.
Oh—and avoid cuddling your chickens.
Sources for Today’s Article:
“Chicken Owners Brood Over CDC Advice Not To Kiss, Cuddle Birds.” NPR.org, http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/07/16/423204177/chicken-owners-brood-over-cdc-advice-not-to-kiss-cuddle-birds; last accessed July 17, 2015.
“Salmonella Infection,” Mayo Clinic web site, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/salmonella/basics/definition/con-20029017; last accessed July 17, 2015.
“Salmonellosis-Topic Overview,” WebMD web site, http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/food-poisoning/salmonellosis-topic-overview?page=2; last accessed July 17, 2015.
“What Is Salmonellosis?” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site, March 9, 2015; last accessed July 17, 2015. http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/general/index.html.