The recent salmonella infections from contaminated eggs have caused concern across the nation. Salmonella are bacteria that cause diarrhea illness in humans. They were discovered by American scientist Dr. Daniel E. Salmon over 100 years ago. The bacteria live in the intestinal tract of infected humans and animals and are usually transmitted to people through the ingestion of infected foods.
An estimated 1.5 million cases of food-borne illness occur in the U.S. each year. This number includes other bacteria that cause gastrointestinal symptoms, as well as salmonella. There are two major types of salmonella that cause most of these infections, Salmonella Enteritidis and Salmonella Typhimurium.
Salmonella can be present on raw foods of animal origin. This includes meats, poultry, seafood, milk, eggs and other dairy products. Fruits and vegetables can also be contaminated. Contamination from one food to another can occur if foods are prepared on the same surface or if a preparer or preparing device is contaminated.
Any bacteria on or in food does not necessarily mean it is contaminated. The potential for infection arises when the bacteria in the food are present in high levels (e.g. food sitting out at room temperature at home, at a restaurant or at a picnic). Also, if the bacteria are a particularly virulent strain, a smaller amount may cause disease. Foods that are contaminated with bacteria may not look, smell or taste any different than normal.
The symptoms of salmonella infection include diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain and cramping. Bloody diarrhea is more common in salmonellosis than in viral infections. Other symptoms may include headache, chills, nausea or vomiting. Symptoms are usually seen within 8 to 72 hours after ingestion of the contaminated food.
Most individuals with salmonellosis recover without specific treatment. The body’s natural defenses fight off the infection. However, some are at risk for more severe or even life-threatening infections. These include infants and young children, older adults and those with weakened immune systems (HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease or transplant recipients).
Treatment is aimed at controlling the symptoms. In the presence of diarrhea and vomiting, dehydration can occur. Therefore, fluid replacement is the most important course of therapy. Medicines may be needed to treat the symptoms of nausea or diarrhea to prevent fluid loss. If oral fluids will not stay in, intravenous fluid therapy may be needed.
Unfortunately, contamination with prepackaged food products, such as eggs, is beyond our control as food preparers. However, prevention still plays a role in regard to food-borne illness. Proper food handling in the home should include hand washing, avoiding cross-contamination of foods and thorough washing of foods such as fruits and vegetables. Eggs and meats should be cooked to safe temperatures and refrigerated promptly and properly. Foods should be thawed in the refrigerator, cold water or in the microwave, not at room temperature.
The content in this column is for informational purposes only. Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment. Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.