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08.17.10

6 Things You Should Know About Salmonella

With an outbreak sickening hundreds and prompting a huge egg recall, The Daily Beast digs for facts about salmonella, from symptoms and risk factors to prevention and treatment.

1. An Egg Distributor Is Behind the Outbreak.

Health officials across the country remain on high alert, with the outbreak confirmed in at least three states: California, Colorado, and Minnesota. The source has been traced back to Wright County Egg, a large distributor based in Iowa; the company has issued a recall on 380 million eggs across 13 of its brands. Already, 266 people in California have become sick.

2. Outbreaks Spike Between July and October.

The Wright County Egg recall is the largest salmonella-related incident of the year, but outbreaks are fairly common, with infection rates often spiking between July and October. Earlier this month, Taco Bell was linked to at least 155 confirmed cases of salmonella across 15 states. An additional 25 cases, attributed to green onions, popped up in Ontario just last week. But the season’s most bizarre outbreak was in Morrison, Colorado, where 28 patrons of The Fort restaurant were infected with salmonella after eating a curious dish called rattlesnake cake in early August.

Of course, the worst outbreak in recent memory occurred almost two years ago, when an instance of salmonella at wholesale peanut butter manufacturer King Nut led to recalls of more than 125 products from 70 companies.

3. How to Spot Salmonella Symptoms.

The salmonella bacteria has more than 2,000 varieties, though only a handful cause illnesses in humans. The most common symptoms, often acting as bellwethers, are gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea. Other early signs that you’ve consumed salmonella—they’re likely to occur somewhere between a few hours to a couple days after ingestion—include nausea, fever, vomiting, and muscle pains. In some cases, though mostly in the developing world, salmonella can cause typhoid fever.

The main goal in treating salmonella is to replace the hydration and electrolytes lost by diarrhea, while fever and aches can be treated with pain relievers. In infants, the elderly, and those with weak immune system, the dehydration can be enough to cause serious—and dangerous—medical problems. Most patients get better after only a few days.

4. Who’s Most at Risk for Salmonella.

Salmonella is spread through the fecal matter of animals and humans. Infection occurs through eating food or drinking a beverage that has been infected—it can’t be spread through coughing, sneezing, or other physical person-to-person contact. Still, individuals living with others who are infected are likely to pick up the bacteria, as are those with weakened immune systems as a result of diseases like AIDS or cancer. Do you have a pet? Interaction with reptiles will increase your chances of infection, as will keeping dry pet food around the house, according to a recent study.

5. How to Protect Yourself.

Aside from sending your turtle back to the creek, there are a number of steps to take during food preparation to decrease your chances of contracting salmonella poisoning. Heat kills the bacteria, so any poultry, beef, and eggs should be thoroughly cooked before eating. Meat should be reach at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit throughout, and egg yolks should be cooked until solid. Avoid raw milk, raw eggs, or foods containing raw eggs such as eggnog, hollandaise sauce, or even undercooked French toast. And wash your hands when around animals or animal products—a lot.

6. Salmonella Costs $3 Billion a Year in the U.S.

According to the World Health Organization, which last compiled data in 2005, salmonella in the U.S. accounts for 168,000 hospital visits, 15,000 hospitalizations, and 580 deaths each year. That’s a public health burden estimated to run up a yearly tab of $3 billion. Few other countries report on the cost of treating illnesses such as bacteria, but the WHO reports that millions of cases are reported around the world each year, resulting in thousands of deaths.