The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is currently investigating two outbreaks of salmonella poisoning that are believed to be linked to contaminated salami, prosciutto, or other Italian-style meats. The outbreak has impacted 36 people in 17 U.S. states so far, the CDC reports. (Health Canada hasn’t issued any similar alerts recently).
The agency caught some flak online for advising people to heat their deli meats to offset the food poisoning risk. While it definitely seems strange to heat up cold cuts, it doesn’t take much reading on salmonella to convince even the most traditional charcuterie board fans to do everything in their power to avoid getting infected.
Here’s what you should know about salmonella.
What is salmonella?
Salmonella enterica is a foodborne pathogenic bacteria that can be found in contaminated food. If you consume enough of it, it can cause an infection in your gastrointestinal tract. Salmonella poisoning is technically called salmonellosis, although that term is less commonly used.
According to Health Canada, the symptoms of salmonella poisoning include:
- Stomach cramps
- Sudden headache
Symptoms usually occur within six to 72 hours of exposure, but in some cases may surface days later.
How is it treated?
Generally, the symptoms resolve within four to seven days. Most of the time, people recover on their own, with rest and a lot of fluids. In many cases, people might not even know salmonella was the cause of their illness. A diagnosis of salmonellosis is confirmed when a sample is sent for testing, usually when a person seeks medical care.
For some people, though, it can be more serious. Children under five, adults 60 years of age and older, pregnant people, and those who are immunocompromised all have an increased risk for severe salmonellosis. In severe cases, people can be hospitalized, where they’re usually given IV fluids and, in some cases, antibiotic treatment.
If you experience a fever over 38.6 degrees Celsius for longer than a day, diarrhea for more than 3 days, bloody stool, or symptoms of dehydration (dizziness, dry mouth, low urine output), it’s a good idea to seek medical care.
How can I avoid salmonella?
Most of the time, people get salmonella poisoning after eating contaminated food. The most common culprits are raw or undercooked meats (especially poultry), raw or undercooked eggs, unpasteurized dairy, and raw fruits and vegetables.
It’s estimated that one in every 25 packages of chicken in grocery stores are contaminated with salmonella, according to the CDC. It’s less common in eggs, but they’re still a major source of transmission because people tend to eat eggs when they’re undercooked eggs. Approximately one in every 20,000 eggs is contaminated with salmonella — but they won’t cause illness if they’re cooked thoroughly.
Some raw fruits and vegetables may also be contaminated with salmonella, but it can usually be removed when they’re washed with water. Other foods, like the Italian-style cured meats currently responsible for the U.S. outbreak, can become infected with salmonella if they are not processed and handled properly.
Safe food handling is the best way to avoid salmonella poisoning. You can prevent infection by:
- Washing your hands before and after handling food
- Avoiding cross-contamination of surfaces
- Storing foods properly in the fridge
- Disposing of food left at room temperature for more than four hours
- Cooking raw meats and eggs to a temperature of at least 74 degrees Celsius (or 165 degrees Fahrenheit)
- Washing raw fruits and vegetables thoroughly with water before consuming
It’s also important to know that people who have salmonella poisoning can transmit the infection to others. People who are sick should stay home and practice good hand hygiene after using the bathroom. People who are infected with salmonella should not handle food.
Is salmonella common?
It’s the most common food-related illness, according to Web MD. From 2009 to 2013, a yearly average of 6,500 cases of salmonella poisoning were reported in Canada. However, because many people recover at home, most cases of salmonella poisoning are never reported.
“For every one case of salmonella illness confirmed by laboratory tests, there are about 30 more cases of salmonella illnesses that are not,” the CDC says on their website.
The CDC also estimates that salmonella causes approximately “1.35 million illnesses, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 420 deaths in the United States every year.”
People who take cancer drugs or steroids may have weaker immune systems, which can make them more susceptible to the pathogen. Taking antacids or antibiotics can also make the infection harder to fight off. And people with irritable bowel syndrome may have damage in the lining of their intestine, which can make it easier for salmonella to take hold.
You may have an increased risk of salmonella poisoning when travelling abroad. The regions where travellers are most likely to pick up the bacteria include Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia. This is likely related to the climate in those regions: salmonella infections are more common in hot weather because salmonella grows quickly in higher temperatures.
Is it dangerous?
In very rare cases, salmonella has been fatal. But most people recover.
Salmonella can have severe consequences if the infection reaches the blood, because it can spread to other parts of your body. And in some cases it can cause joint pain that lasts several months.
The most common complication, though, is dehydration due to diarrhea. For that reason, anyone infected with salmonella should remember to drink a lot of water.