The short term effects of food poisoning caused by salmonella absolutely suck: vomiting, diarrhea, fever, chills. You’re basically forced to wrap yourself in a blanket and take up shelter in the bathroom for a while, after which you might be relegated to bed rest for days. But new research from Cornell University suggests that the long term effects of certain strains of the bacteria might have negative consequences as well – literally damaging your DNA.
In a study published late last year, researchers Rachel Miller and Martin Wiedmann, both of whom work in Cornell’s Department of Food Science, looked at five different salmonella strains known to produce a toxin that can cause cell damage. According to the Cornell Chronicle, when unleashed upon human cells grown in the lab, these strains were “found to lead to hallmark signatures that indicate the presence of DNA damage” – an effect that could impact those struck with the illness later in life. “A person’s damaged DNA from salmonella could lead to long-term health consequences after the infection subsides, such as longer bouts with foodborne illness,” Wiedmann said.
Miller offered up a more detailed explanation of possible implications: “Think about possible DNA damage this way: We apply sunscreen to keep the sun from damaging our skin. If you don’t apply sunscreen, you can get a sunburn – and possibly develop skin problems later in life,” she was quoted as saying. “While not the sun, salmonella bacteria may work in a similar way. The more you expose your body’s cells to DNA damage, the more DNA damage that needs to be repaired, and there may one day be a chance that the DNA damage is not correctly repaired. We don’t really know right now the true permanent damage from these salmonella infections.”
Worth noting is that, as Miller points out, “Not all salmonella serotypes are equal.” Over 2,500 strains of the bacteria exists with somewhere closer to 100 causing the majority of foodborne illness, meaning in theory, plenty of types of salmonella-induced food poisoning may get you sick without damaging your genetic material – something to stay positive about next time your puking into the toilet.
And though these findings are interesting, the immediate impact may be hard to quantify. No one sets out to get salmonella in the first place, so it’s not like knowing that the illness may cause additional long term damage means you’re going to work even harder not to get food poisoning tomorrow. At the very least, however, news like this serves as a reminder that we all should be working harder to try to curb foodborne illness in general. If you didn’t find the tummy troubles reason enough to take salmonella seriously, maybe that whole DNA damage thing will up the stakes.