Food Poisoning
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10 Shocking Facts About the Deadliest Foodborne Bacteria

Papaya, chicken and even your pet turtle can make you sick.

1 / 11

By Patrick Sullivan

You’d like to think that everything you eat is safe and free from germs that make you sick, but that’s not always the case. And when it comes to food poisoning, the bacteria most likely to put you in the hospital—and maybe kill you—is salmonella. Here are the most essential facts about this foodborne illness.

Salmonella is common

2 / 11 Salmonella is common

Salmonella infects about 1.2 million people per year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While a salmonella infection is uncomfortable and potentially serious, it's rarely fatal—it kills only about 450 people annually, says the CDC. Infection rates have fluctuated a bit, but generally have held steady in in the last decade.

Salmonella's not just one germ

3 / 11 Salmonella's not just one germ

Salmonella is the genus of the bacteria, and there are two species. But there are a lot more subcategories, called serotypes, within those two species—more than 2,500, in fact.

Don’t worry—you don’t need to know about all 2,500 kinds of salmonella. Four serotypes—Enteritidis, Typhimurium, Newport, and Javiana—account for about half of all lab-confirmed cases. The CDC tracks 10 serotypes in total. 

Salmonella comes from poop

4 / 11 Salmonella comes from poop

Salmonella comes from human or animal feces and can be introduced into your food at any time, from picking, slaughtering or manufacturing to processing and preparation.

If a field is irrigated with salmonella-contaminated water, those veggies might not be safe. If some factory equipment becomes contaminated, or if your food prep surfaces are dirty, the food you eat could be tainted. You can even get it from pet poop.

You can pick up salmonella almost anywhere

5 / 11 You can pick up salmonella almost anywhere

Part of the reason there are so many infections is because people can get salmonella from a number of sources. There were more than 160 salmonella outbreaks in 2015 alone, caused by everything from cucumbers to pet turtles, according to the CDC. However, humans usually become infected from contaminated food, including:

  • Eggs
  • Chicken
  • Beef
  • Alfalfa sprouts
  • Melon
  • Nuts

Pets, especially exotic pets, can also infect humans. People who own reptiles, amphibians and birds are at greater risk of salmonella.

Anyone can get sick

6 / 11 Anyone can get sick

Anyone can be infected with salmonella and fall ill, but some people are more vulnerable than others. Children under the age of five have a higher rate of infection than any other age group. Young kids, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are more likely than healthy adults to develop a potentially life-threatening infection that requires hospitalization.

Salmonella is rough on your stomach

7 / 11 Salmonella is rough on your stomach

A salmonella infection causes gastroenteritis, which is an inflammation of the stomach and intestines. This leads to diarrhea, abdominal pain and occasionally nausea, vomiting and headaches. You’ll almost always get a fever.

Symptoms show up 12 to 72 hours after being exposed to the bacteria. An infection usually lasts between four and seven days, and most people get better on their own.

However, serious complications can happen if the infection moves out of the gastrointestinal tract and into the rest of the body. These potentially life-threatening infections are medical emergencies, and include:

  • Bacteremia—infection of the bloodstream
  • Meningitis—infection of the brain and spinal cord’s lining
  • Osteomyelitis—bone infection
  • Septic arthritis—joint infection 
Salmonella can be hard to detect

8 / 11 Salmonella can be hard to detect

Since symptoms can take up to three days to hit, you may not realize your stomach trouble is tied to salmonella.

To diagnose a salmonella infection, healthcare providers will first take a sample of your stool and get a culture from it, meaning it will be placed in a dish and checked to see what grows. If salmonella bacteria develops, then your healthcare providers know you were infected. However, since salmonella infections go away by themselves so often, yours might be over by the time the test results come back. 

Some treatments are no longer as effective

9 / 11 Some treatments are no longer as effective

Most suspected cases of salmonella infection don’t need treatment since they usually clear up so quickly. You’ll want to stay hydrated while you’re sick, and just ride it out.

If you’re still sick after your stool culture comes back, you may be given antibiotics; they're prescribed to treat serious infections and people with an increased risk for complications. Some types of salmonella infections have become resistant to antibiotics and are therefore harder to treat. The CDC has investigated three antibiotic-resistant salmonella outbreaks since 2015. 

Prevention is simple

10 / 11 Prevention is simple

If you’re mindful of good hygiene and food preparation, preventing salmonella infections is pretty easy. Here are three of the best practices to follow.

  • Don’t eat raw or undercooked meat. Safe internal temperatures are 165 degrees Fahrenheit (°F) for poultry, 160°F for ground meat and 145°F for beef, pork, ham and fish. Eggs should be cooked all the way through.
  • Avoid cross-contamination when preparing food. Have dedicated areas for each type of food including meat, poultry and vegetables. Wash cutting boards, plates, utensils and surfaces after they’ve touched raw food.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling pet reptiles, amphibians and birds, or their droppings—and don’t let kids handle them at all. 
Where to find out more

11 / 11 Where to find out more

The CDC tracks past and active salmonella outbreaks. You can find its salmonella outbreak page here. You can also check with the Food and Drug Administration, which keeps a running list of food and product recalls, including those recalled due to fears of salmonella contamination.  

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