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Senior Correspondent

Q. What exactly is Salmonella and how can I avoid it?

Salmonella are microscopic living creatures that spread from the feces of people or animals. Salmonella can be found in raw poultry, eggs, beef, and unwashed produce. But, any food can become contaminated. Salmonella is the most common cause of foodborne illness in the United States.

Salmonellosis is an infection of the intestinal tract from the bacteria. Symptoms of the infection, which usually last four days to a week, include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and headache.

Salmonellosis can be more serious in the elderly, infants, and those with impaired immune systems. Typhoid fever, a more serious disease caused by Salmonella, frequently occurs in developing countries.

Most people who get infected don’t need treatment. If Salmonella germs get into your bloodstream, they can be lethal. When this occurs, antibiotics are used to treat the condition.

Seek medical attention if you develop diarrhea that doesn't clear within several days. Other symptoms that require a healthcare provider are blood in your stool, severe vomiting, abdominal pain or dehydration.

In some persons, the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized for rehydration with intravenous fluids. In these patients, the Salmonella infection may spread from the intestines to the blood stream, and then to other body sites and can cause death unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics.

A small number of Salmonella victims develop joint pain, eye irritation and painful urination. This is called Reiter's syndrome. It can persist for years and lead to chronic arthritis.

Salmonella germs in feces remain highly contagious. These germs are usually transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with feces. A common cause for salmonellosis is a food handler who did not wash with soap after using the bathroom.

You also can get a Salmonella infection after handling pets, particularly reptiles such as snakes, turtles and lizards. About 90 percent of reptiles carry salmonella. Many young birds carry Salmonella in their feces.

How can you prevent getting infected by Salmonella? Here are some tips:

  • Don’t eat undercooked eggs, poultry, or meat.
  • Always wash your hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds after using the bathroom, holding pets (especially reptiles), handling uncooked foods or utensils used on these foods, and touching any feces.
  • Wash utensils, cutting boards, dishes, and countertops after preparing each food item.
  • Use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
  • Use disposable paper towels to clean kitchen surfaces. If you use cloth towels, wash them often in the hot cycle of your washing machine.
  • Avoid foods that may contain raw eggs such as some salad dressings, homemade ice cream or mayonnaise, cookie dough, and frostings.
  • Keep eggs refrigerated below 41 °F. Discard cracked or dirty eggs.
  • Cook eggs thoroughly and eat them promptly. Undercooked egg whites and yolks have been associated with Salmonella infections.
  • Cook your hamburgers so there is no pink in the middle.
  • Wash all produce thoroughly.
  • Isolate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from other foods.
  • Freeze or refrigerate food promptly. Freezers should register 0 °F or below and refrigerators 40 °F or below.
  • Thaw and marinate foods in the refrigerator. Foods should not be thawed at room temperature. Foods thawed in the microwave or in cold water must be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature before refrigerating.
  • Don't pack the refrigerator so that air can’t circulate in it.

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