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What is salmonella?
“Salmonella” is what we commonly call it when you get sick with diarrhea and stomach pains from Salmonella bacteria (gastroenteritis). It’s the most common form of bacterial food poisoning in the U.S.
It’s also called salmonellosis, to tell it apart from other illnesses you can get from different forms of Salmonella bacteria, like typhoid fever.
What happens to you if you get salmonella?
When you get salmonella, it means enough bacteria have gotten past your stomach acid and immune system to make you sick. Salmonella bacteria invade and destroy the cells that line your intestines. This makes it hard for your body to absorb water, which can give you stomach cramps. The water leaves your body in the form of diarrhea.
Who is at higher risk for salmonella?
Anyone can get salmonella, but you might be at higher risk for infection or serious illness depending on your age, your living conditions and certain illnesses and medications.
You’re at an increased risk of getting salmonella if you:
- Live or work around high-risk animals. This includes chickens, ducks, turtles and lizards.
- Take antacids or recently took antibiotics. These medications lower your defenses against salmonella and make it easier to get sick.
- Live with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The damage caused by IBD makes it easier to get an infection.
- Are under the age of 5.
You’re at higher risk for serious illness from a Salmonella infection if you:
- Are over the age of 65 or under the age of 12 months.
- Have a compromised immune system (due to HIV, chemotherapy or other illnesses or medications).
- Have sickle cell disease. Sickle cell disease puts you at risk for osteomyelitis, a rare complication of salmonella.
How common is salmonella?
Salmonella is one of the most common forms of food poisoning. Over a million people in the U.S. alone get salmonella every year and 26,500 are hospitalized. There are about 420 deaths due to salmonella every year in the U.S.
What are some common causes of salmonella outbreaks?
Many kinds of food have caused salmonella outbreaks, including peanut butter, packaged meats, frozen food and produce. Salmonella outbreaks from animals include pet turtles, lizards, chickens, hedgehogs and guinea pigs.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of Salmonella poisoning?
Symptoms of salmonella appear anywhere from a few hours to a few days after exposure to Salmonella bacteria. Symptoms of salmonella affect your stomach and intestines (GI tract) and include:
- Diarrhea (sometimes bloody).
- Stomach pains or cramps.
- Nausea and vomiting.
You may have some or all these symptoms.
Do you always throw up with salmonella?
No, you don’t always throw up when you have Salmonella poisoning. The most common symptoms are diarrhea and fever, though you do sometimes throw up.
What does salmonella poop look like?
When you have a salmonella, your poop is usually runny and you may have to go a lot. It may have blood in it. Call or visit your healthcare provider if you have blood in your poop.
What causes salmonella?
Salmonella poisoning is caused by the bacteria Salmonella. When more Salmonella bacteria get into your body than it can destroy, you get an infection that causes fever, diarrhea and other stomach (gastrointestinal) issues.
Salmonella bacteria live in the guts of people and animals, but the things we eat, drink and touch can also be contaminated, including:
- Raw eggs and eggshells.
- Raw red meat, seafood and poultry.
- Fruits and vegetables.
- Unpasteurized milk or cheese.
- Untreated water.
- The fur, feathers, scales, skin and poop (feces) of animals and the places they live.
- Surfaces around someone who’s infected with Salmonella bacteria.
How do you get salmonella?
The most common way to get salmonella is from undercooked food or improper food prep, for instance:
- Eating uncooked or undercooked meat, poultry, seafood or eggs.
- Eating contaminated fruits and vegetables.
- Drinking contaminated water or unpasteurized milk.
- Not washing your hands while preparing food and eating.
You can also get salmonella from animals and people who are infected with Salmonella bacteria. You can get Salmonella bacteria on your hands when you touch an animal, then transfer it to your mouth. Almost any animal can have a Salmonella infection or carry Salmonella bacteria on its fur, feathers, scales or skin. This includes:
- Amphibians (frogs and toads).
- Reptiles (turtles, lizards and snakes).
- Birds (chicken, ducks, turkey and wild birds).
- Farm animals (cows, goats, sheep and pigs).
- Pets (dogs, cats, birds and small animals).
What food is Salmonella found in?
Almost any uncooked foods could be contaminated with Salmonella bacteria, but most people get sick from uncooked or undercooked poultry or eggs.
Does Salmonella have a smell?
No, Salmonella bacteria doesn’t have a smell. Food contaminated with Salmonella bacteria usually smells and looks normal.
Is salmonella contagious?
Yes, salmonella is contagious — you can get a Salmonella infection from another person or even your pet. If you don’t wash your hands after going to the bathroom or while you are sick, you can contaminate surfaces and foods and spread Salmonella to other people.
Diagnosis and Tests
How salmonella diagnosed?
Salmonella is diagnosed with a test of your stool (poop), blood or other sample. Your healthcare provider will give you a physical exam and ask you about your symptoms and health history.
What tests will be done to diagnose salmonella?
- Stool sample. You usually give a sample of your poop (stool) from the privacy of your own home. Your healthcare provider will give you a sterile container and instructions on how to collect a sample. A lab will test the sample for signs of Salmonella bacteria.
- Blood sample. Your provider will collect blood with a needle from your arm. A lab will culture (try to grow) Salmonella bacteria from your blood sample.
- Other samples. Your provider might use other body fluids or tissues, like pee (urine) or a sample taken from a wound (abscess) to test for Salmonella.
Management and Treatment
How is salmonella treated?
You usually don’t treat salmonella with medication. If you’re severely ill or at high risk for complications, your healthcare provider will treat you with antibiotics. If you have severe diarrhea, you may need to be hospitalized.
You should drink plenty of fluids. Your provider may give you IV fluids if you’re dehydrated.
What medications are used to treat salmonella?
If you need antibiotics for a Salmonella infection, your healthcare provider might prescribe:
How do I manage the symptoms of salmonella?
The most important way to manage the symptoms of salmonella is to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Fluids that help you stay hydrated include:
- Sports drinks.
- 100% fruit juices with water added.
- Oral rehydration solutions (like Pedialyte).
For adults, over-the-counter medications like loperamide (Imodium) and bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate) can help stop diarrhea. Don’t give diarrhea medications to children or infants without talking to your pediatrician.
Can salmonella go away on its own?
Salmonella usually goes away on its own, though you may have to go through a few days of symptoms first. Make sure to drink plenty of fluids so you don’t get dehydrated.
How can I prevent salmonella?
You can greatly reduce your risk of salmonella by following safe food preparation practices and being careful around animals.
Safe food preparation practices for reducing your risk of salmonella
Cooking and pasteurization kill Salmonella bacteria in foods. There are several ways to reduce your risk of salmonella while preparing food:
- Don’t make food for others if you’re sick.
- Always wash your hands with soap and water after going to the bathroom.
- Wash your hands before and after preparing food or eating.
- Wash food prep and eating surfaces and utensils before and after use.
- Cook foods to a safe temperature before eating.
- Don’t handle any other foods while working with raw meat, poultry, seafood or eggs.
- Wash or peel vegetables and fruits before cutting, eating or cooking.
- Refrigerate or freeze meat, poultry and seafood as soon as possible.
- Don’t drink unpasteurized milk or food made with unpasteurized milk.
- Don’t drink untreated water or eat food prepared with untreated water. If you’re unsure if the water is treated (for instance, if you’re traveling), use bottled water to drink and cook with.
Safe animal handling for reducing your risk of salmonella
Almost any animal can have a Salmonella infection or carry Salmonella bacteria on its fur, feathers, scales or skin. Infected animals won’t necessarily appear sick. Chickens, ducks, turtles and lizards are at the highest risk of carrying a Salmonella infection.
There are a few things you can do to protect yourself from Salmonella bacteria carried by animals:
- Wash your hands with soap and water after touching animals (including pets) or their food, water bowls, litter boxes, poop, cages or toys.
- Don’t touch or put your hands in your mouth after touching animals. Don’t kiss their fur, feathers, scales or skin.
- If you have a weakened immune system or are older than 65 or younger than 5, you shouldn’t touch high-risk animals.
- Don’t eat or drink around high-risk animals or in the places they live.
- Clean your pet’s habitat (like their aquarium, cage or terrarium) outside if possible. Don’t use the kitchen sink to clean your pet’s habitat, toys or bowls.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have salmonella?
Salmonella is usually self-limiting, meaning it goes away without treatment after a few days of symptoms. Most of the time you can manage at home until you feel better.
If you’re living with a compromised immune system or sickle cell disease, or if you get severely ill with salmonella, your healthcare provider may treat you with antibiotics.
How long does salmonella last?
Symptoms of salmonella usually last between four and seven days. Talk to your healthcare provider if your symptoms aren’t improving after three days.
What are the complications of salmonella?
While most people don’t have complications of salmonella, you should be on the lookout for signs of more serious illness. Some complications of salmonella include dehydration, bacteremia, osteomyelitis and reactive arthritis.
If you don’t replace the fluids lost through diarrhea or vomiting, you can get dehydrated. Severe dehydration can be life-threatening. Go to the nearest ER if you experience symptoms of severe dehydration, including:
- Dark-colored pee (urine) or less pee than usual.
- Dizziness, weakness or light-headedness.
- Dry mouth or throat.
- High heart rate.
- Loss of appetite.
- Flushed (red) skin.
- Muscle cramps.
If salmonella gets into your bloodstream (bacteremia), it can start infecting other organs and tissues. This can cause inflammation of your bones or joints or the lining of your brain, heart or heart valves. Bacteremia can lead to sepsis, a life-threatening condition where your immune system starts attacking your body.
Go to the ER if you have symptoms of sepsis, meningitis, pericarditis or endocarditis.
If you’re living with sickle cell disease, you’re at increased risk for a rare Salmonella infection of the bone called osteomyelitis. See your healthcare provider if you’ve had salmonella and have:
- Back or bone pain.
- Pain that makes it difficult to move.
- Parts of your body that are swollen, red or filled with fluid (pus).
Sometimes your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy parts of your body when it’s trying to fight an illness. Reactive arthritis causes inflammation in your lower back, joints and eyes. Symptoms of reactive arthritis include:
- Lower back pain.
- Joint pain, stiffness and swelling.
- Frequent need to pee.
- Burning feeling when you pee.
- Conjunctivitis (pink eye).
- Diarrhea and abdominal pain.
- Mouth sores.
Can you die from salmonella?
Yes, you can die from salmonella if it spreads to other areas of your body or causes sepsis, but it’s extremely unlikely. Out of millions of Salmonella infections in the U.S. each year, only 420 people die from it.
When should I see my healthcare provider?
You should contact your healthcare provider if your symptoms don’t get better after a few days. You should go to the ER if you have signs of serious illness or dehydration, including:
- High fever.
- Blood in your poop.
- Throwing up frequently, not being able to keep food or liquids down.
- Dark-colored pee or less pee (urine) than usual.
- Dry mouth or throat.
- Feeling dizzy when you stand.
What questions should I ask my doctor?
- How can I manage my symptoms at home?
- What’s the best way to keep hydrated?
- What should I do if my symptoms get worse or change?
- What symptoms should prompt me to call you or go to the ER?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Salmonella poisoning is common. While it’s unpleasant, it’s usually not severe. Drink plenty of fluids and don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare provider if you’re not getting better within a few days. If you have a compromised immune system or are at high risk of complications from salmonella, ask your provider if you should be on antibiotics to treat the infection.
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