A little care can prevent outbreaks of salmonella

It seems like a daily news headline: "New salmonella outbreak sickens dozens."

From tomatoes to jalapenos to cantaloupes, to pistachio nuts, to white pepper, there's always something. Salmonella is everywhere.

As with any other infection, the key to prevention of salmonellosis is knowledge. Knowledge is power. It is our strength. How can we keep ourselves and our families safe? We start where we always start, with the facts. So let's take a look at what the CDC has to say about salmonellosis.

Salmonellosis is caused by a group of bacteria called salmonella (imagine that!). The critter was discovered by an American scientist named Salmon for whom it was named. (That sounds like a piece of useless trivia to store away for "Who Wants to be a Millionaire").

The symptoms are diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps starting 12-72 hours after exposure. This usually lasts four to six days. Most people recover without antibiotic treatment. The infection can be serious in patients with suppressed immune systems and the elderly. It can even lead to death. Some strains have become resistant to antibiotics largely as a result of the use of antibiotics to promote the growth of food animals.

Salmonella lives in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals including reptiles and birds. The most common way to catch salmonellosis is by eating food or drinking water contaminated with animal excrement. In the United States it is illegal to grow food and graze livestock on the same land at the same time just for this reason.

The same can not be said for produce grown outside the U.S. One batch of produce may be contaminated and pass through a processing plant, contaminating the machinery. Everything from that point on is toast. This is what happened with peanuts. The bacteria was mixed up in many products and sent out to markets all over the world.

The most common foods contaminated with salmonella bacteria are beef, poultry, milk and eggs, but any food, including vegetables, may become contaminated.

Thorough cooking kills the bug, but care must be taken to prevent cross contamination of food. For example: using the same knife to cut up the chicken and salad fixings without washing in warm soapy water between tasks, or using the same plate to transport hamburgers to the grill (raw) and from the grill to the table (cooked).

Produce must always be washed VERY well, and don't recontaminate it with unwashed hands. Raw eggs can play a part in transmission. The egg is actually contaminated inside the chicken BEFORE the shell forms. This is why you can't get a good Caesar salad at a restaurant anymore, " raw eggs are too risky. The Public Health Department frowns on that sort of thing. Raw cookie dough isn't safe either.

Antibiotics are not used unless the infection is severe. Hydration and treatment of the symptoms is usually enough. You just have to tough it out.

One regional outbreak implicates contaminated white pepper sold to restaurants, and has caused illness in Northern Nevada. The outbreaks of salmonella associated with pistachio nuts and peanut products are still out there, too. In the past year tomatoes, cantaloupe, and jalapenos have all been associated with outbreaks.

So, what do we do?

Prevention is the key. Do not eat raw or undercooked eggs, poultry, or meat. Unpasteurized dairy products and juices should be avoided, especially with kids. Produce should be washed before eating, even those salads in a bag that say they are prewashed. Rinse it anyway.

Wash hands after any contact with animal excrement, and after handling reptiles or birds. Make sure your little ones do, too. Kids love to hold baby chicks, but beware, and keep hand sanitizer handy. When a particular food is recalled, don't eat it. Follow CDC instructions.

Keep in mind that salmonella-contaminated food does not look, smell or taste bad, and animals that carry salmonella may not appear ill. Just because you can't see any sign of salmonella doesn't mean it is not around, lurking, waiting for an opportunity to make you sick.

When in doubt, assume it is there. Stay safe and healthy.

- Doris Dimmitt is an epidemiologist with Carson Tahoe Regional Healthcare .


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