The Center For Disease Control and Prevention is urging people to stay away from papaya this week after a dozen people were hospitalized and one person died from a salmonella outbreak linked to the tropical fruit. Days later, yellow Maradol papayas from the brand Caribea were recalled, but what about before then? How can you protect yourself from salmonella before the CDC warns against certain foods?
What is salmonella?
Salmonella is a bacteria that can cause an infection called salmonellosis, according to the CDC. Estimated to cause 1.2 million food-borne illnesses in the United States each year, with 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths, it's one of the most common causes of food poisoning in the country.
What happens if I get sick?
"Symptoms of salmonella infection usually start 12 to 72 hours after you're exposed to the bacteria," said Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH, senior medical director at WebMD. "You'll feel sick with vomiting, diarrhea, belly pain, and fever, and unfortunately, it can take up to a week to feel better."
Most people recover completely without medical treatment, as long as they drink plenty of fluids to rehydrate, according to the CDC.
In rare cases, though, people develop more severe infections when the salmonella spreads from the intestines to the blood stream and into other parts of the body. This happens among eight percent of patients, who can usually be treated with antibiotics. In the most serious of these cases, the infection can be fatal.
"Infections are most common in children under 5, so be especially careful with minimizing their exposures to salmonella," Cassoobhoy said. "Those most at risk for getting very sick and needing hospitalization include babies and adults who are frail from age or chronic illness."
Where does salmonella come from?
Salmonella lives in the intestinal tracts of humans and animals and is spread by fecal contamination of food. Unfortunately, there aren't any tricks to spot contaminated foods, as they look and smell normal. They're often animal products — like beef, poultry, milk, fish, or eggs — but water, fruits, veggies, and even processed foods are fair game for contamination.
How can I avoid getting sick?
"You can kill salmonella with cooking and pasteurization," Cassoobhoy said. "Make sure you eat fully cooked meats and eggs and choose pasteurized dairy products."
She said to also keep an eye out for raw eggs in some of our other favorite foods, like cake batter, cookie dough, and homemade sauces and dressings. To avoid spreading salmonella in the kitchen, you should should work with raw meat separately from other foods, and you should wash your hands, tools, and surfaces immediately afterward.
"Salmonella infection can also spread from contact with animals, especially reptile pets," Cassoobhoy said. Like with foods, you can't tell if an animal is infected just by looking at it, so always wash your hands after handling animals and their supplies. "This includes cute little baby chicks, turtles, iguanas, snakes, and frogs. I'd avoid reptile pets in your home if you have little ones."