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Salmonellae: A Preventable Illness

Summertime... picnics, backyard barbecues, camping and the like can create a breeding ground for food borne illnesses. In recent years, several outbreaks of salmonella have occurred and we would like to help prevent another outbreak, because once is truly enough.

What is salmonellosis?

Salmonellosis is an infection with bacteria called Salmonella. Most persons infected with Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts 4 to 7 days, and most persons recover without treatment. However, in some persons, the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized. In these patients, the Salmonella infection may spread from the intestines to the blood stream, and then to other body sites and can cause death unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics. The elderly, infants, and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to have a severe illness.

Eggs remain one of the most likely culprits associated with salmonellosis in the United States and several European countries. Can you look at an egg and say, "Aha, this one has Salmonella enteritidis", again the answer is "no". Salmonellae can infect normal-appearing eggs and if eggs are undercooked or eaten raw, then the bacterium can cause illness. During the 1980's, illness related to contaminated eggs occurred most frequently in the northeastern United States, but now illness caused by SE is increasing in other parts of the country as well.

The question that needs to be answered is "How do I prevent or minimize the chance of infection"? Some points to remember are: Make sure to keep eggs refrigerated and discard broken or cracked eggs. Always wash your hands and cooking utensils well with soap and water after contact with raw eggs. Any eggs that are cooked should be eaten promptly and are not to be kept warm for more than two hours. The potato salad at a summer picnic needs to be kept refrigerated or cooled when no longer being eaten. As noted above, you should avoid eating raw eggs including foods such as home-made ice cream, eggnog, Hollandaise sauce or Caesar salad dressing.

What sort of germ is Salmonella?

Salmonella is actually a group of bacteria that can cause diarrheal illness in humans. They are microscopic living creatures that pass from the feces of people or animals to other people or other animals. There are many different kinds of Salmonella bacteria. Salmonella serotype Typhimurium and Salmonella serotype Enteritidis are the most common in the United States. Salmonella germs have been known to cause illness for over 100 years. They were discovered by an American scientist named Salmon, for whom they are named.

How can Salmonella infections be treated?

Salmonella infections usually resolve in 5-7 days and often do not require treatment other than oral fluids. Persons with severe diarrhea may require rehydration with intravenous fluids. Antibiotics, such as ampicillin, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, or ciprofloxacin, are not usually necessary unless the infection spreads from the intestines. Some Salmonella bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics, largely as a result of the use of antibiotics to promote the growth of food animals.

What can I do to prevent salmonellosis?

  • 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.

References:

CDC. Division of Bacterial Mycotic Diseases. Disease Information Salmonella enteritidis.

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