Salmonella 101: Risks, Symptoms and Treatment

In the scramble to make sense of a mysterious strain of Salmonella that has sickened 167 people in 17 states, health officials are now pointing to tainted tomatoes as a likely culprit.

Many consumers, however, may be left with questions about Salmonella. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides a fact sheet on the bacteria to help explain the origins, risk factors and symptoms of infection with Salmonella, or Salmonellosis.

What Is Salmonellosis?

Salmonellosis is an infection of the bacteria 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 patients recover without treatment. However, in some cases, 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. Death is possible 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.

How Can Salmonella Infections Be Diagnosed?

Many different kinds of illnesses can cause diarrhea, fever or abdominal cramps. Determining that Salmonella is the cause of the illness depends on laboratory tests that identify Salmonella in the stool of an infected person. Once Salmonella has been identified, further testing can determine its specific type.

How Can Salmonella Infections Be Treated?

Salmonella infections usually resolve in five to seven 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 their use to promote the growth of food animals.

How Do People Catch Salmonella?

Salmonella live in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals, including birds. Salmonella are usually transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with animal feces. Contaminated foods usually look and smell normal. Contaminated foods are often of animal origin, such as beef, poultry, milk or eggs, but any food, including vegetables, may become contaminated. Thorough cooking kills Salmonella. Food may also become contaminated by the hands of an infected food handler who did not wash with soap after using the bathroom.

Salmonella may also be found in the feces of some pets, especially those with diarrhea, and people can become infected if they do not wash their hands after contact with pets or pet feces. Reptiles, such as turtles, lizards and snakes, are particularly likely to harbor Salmonella.

Many chicks and young birds carry Salmonella in their feces. People should always wash their hands immediately after handling a reptile or bird, even if the animal is healthy. Adults should also assure that children wash their hands after handling a reptile or bird, or after touching its environment.

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