Ha, I bet that title caught your attention, but I’m not trying to be dirty. The latest disease to sweep the nation actually involves both. If you’ve been keeping up to date with the news, you probably know that an outbreak of salmonellosis, or salmonella, has spread across multiple states. The cause? Bad tomatoes. Bad, bad tomatoes! According to the Utah Department of Health, two Utah residents may have caught salmonellosis as part of this great tomato outbreak.
So, what is salmonellosis? It is an infection caused by the bacteria salmonella. Symptoms usually include diarrhea, stomach cramping and fever. Typically these symptoms appear within 12-72 hours of exposure to the bacteria and may last four to seven days. While most cases of salmonellosis go away just fine with treatment (usually keeping hydrated), anyone who has suffered through this infection can tell you it’s not pretty.
As is the case with many diseases, certain subsets of the population may experience more severe illness. These subsets of the population usually include the very young, the elderly and anyone who is already immune compromised with conditions and illnesses such as cancer and HIV. If your immune system is already weakened and you come in contact with salmonella, it’s not hard for the bacteria to spread from your intestines into your blood and other organs. When this happens, the illness becomes much more severe and much harder to treat. Sometimes it can even be fatal. With this recent outbreak, for example, one diagnosed patient has already died (although that was most likely due to preexisting cancer which had already weakened their system).
Salmonellosis is a one of the most commonly reported infectious diseases, although it’s less common than chlamydia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that salmonella affects up 1.4 million people in the United States each year and is the cause of approximately 400 deaths per year. Since most people are not willing to donate a stool sample when they are ill, the CDC estimates that many cases of salmonellosis are never diagnosed or reported.
Infections due to salmonella can come from a variety of sources including infected produce (like these bad tomatoes), uncooked poultry, food that has been prepared by an infected food handler, and even rectal sex. Yes, I promised you we’d get back to that. Salmonella survives well in feces, and you can get it through contact with fecal material in the rectum, which is a great host environment for bacteria to survive and thrive. Produce can easily become contaminated through contact with dirt where animals have defecated. Animals – like chickens – that live in large groups can easily become contaminated through contact with each other’s feces. Fecal oral transmission also occurs frequently when an infected person prepares food, thereby spreading the bacteria on them into the dish.
So how do you keep this nasty bug away? Be sure to wash all of your produce, cook your poultry thoroughly and wash your hands often, particularly after using the restroom and when preparing food. When it comes to rectal sex remember the “c word,” condoms. Using these and washing your hands with antibacterial soap can help prevent salmonellosis and a number of other bacterial and viral infections that are transmitted through rectal sex, like the parasite giardia, E. Coli and certain types of hepatitis. If you are already immune compromised, enduring a diarrheal illness can become very serious and even life threatening. Precautions like these could save your life.
And if you love tomatoes and want to find types that the Food and Drug Administration has determined as safe to eat, visit fda.gov.