What is salmonella?
Salmonella is one of the most common types of food poisoning caused by bacteria in the United States. The US Centers for Disease Control gets about 42,000 reports of salmonella each year. Experts there believe the total number of cases actually may be more than 1.2 million. Salmonella is more common in the summer than the winter.
Salmonella usually is a brief illness with stomach cramps and diarrhea that lasts four to seven days. In some people, the diarrhea can be severe or last longer. In general, children are more likely to get salmonella than other age groups.
Who is at risk for severe salmonella?
- Older people (age 65 and older)
- People with weak immune systems (cancer patients, frail elderly people, people with HIV or AIDS).
- People with inflammatory bowel disease (Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s Disease)
How does a person get salmonella?
Salmonella are a type of bacteria that can live in the digestive tract (intestines) of humans and other animals. Salmonella can pass out of the intestines into poop (feces/stool). A person can get infected with Salmonella by:
- Eating undercooked foods contaminated with animal feces.
- Cooking food destroys Salmonella. Eating raw or undercooked beef, poultry (like chicken or duck), and seafood are a risk. Foods that contain raw eggs also are a risk (like cookie dough or homemade mayonnaise).
- Milk and unwashed, raw vegetables and fruit also can carry Salmonella.
- Eating food prepared on surfaces that were in contact with raw meat (such as a cutting board, or countertop).
- Eating foods contaminated with human feces.
- This can happen if a food worker does not wash his or her hands before handling food.
- Holding, kissing or petting turtles, snakes, lizards, chicks and baby birds.
- These animals are likely to carry Salmonella. People can get infected if they do not wash their hands after they handle these animals or touch their feces or environment (cage, pen, ground, etc.).
- FYI: In 1975 the US Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of small turtles in the United States because of the risk of salmonella.
What are the symptoms of salmonella?
What are the complications of salmonella?
Most people who get salmonella feel better within a week and recover completely. It may take a few months before their bowel system is back to normal.
In severe cases, Salmonella bacteria can get into the bloodstream and travel to the liver, kidneys, or other organs. When this happens, the person must be treated with antibiotics. If treatment is not started soon enough, the infection can cause death. About 400 people a year die from salmonella in the United States.
Reiter’s syndrome is a rare complication of salmonella. In this condition, the person develops joint pain, irritation of the eyes, and pain on urination. Reiter’s syndrome can last for months or years and can lead to arthritis that is difficult to treat.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is salmonella diagnosed?
Salmonella symptoms are vague and can be caused by many illnesses. The only way to know for sure that diarrhea, cramps, and fever are caused by Salmonella infection is by a lab test on the sick person’s stool.
There are more than 2,000 different types of salmonella bacteria that cause people to get sick. Certain antibiotics do not work against some of these types. If the sick person goes to the doctor, the doctor may order additional lab tests on the bacteria in the stool sample to identify the type of salmonella. This information will help the doctor decide what antibiotic to use if that person needs treatment.
Management and Treatment
What is the treatment for salmonella?
Most people with salmonella recover in four to seven days and do not need treatment. During the illness, the person should drink plenty of fluids to replace the fluid lost by diarrhea.
A person who has severe diarrhea or is sick for longer than a week may need to be hospitalized. In the hospital, he or she will be treated with intravenous (IV) fluids. Antibiotics may be used to treat infants, people over age 65, people with a weak immune system (like cancer patients), and those who have severe diarrhea and a high fever and have the bacteria in their bloodstream.
Are there other risk factors for salmonella?
Anything that changes the digestive tract to make it easier for Salmonella bacteria to survive can increase the risk of getting the infection. These include:
- Recent or extended antibiotic use. Antibiotics kill off many of the “good” bacteria in the stomach and intestine, making it harder to fight off salmonella infection
- Antacids. Antacids lower the stomach’s acid level, which lets Salmonella survive better.
- Inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. These diseases damage the intestine lining, making it easier for Salmonella to attach and stay there.
What are some tips for preventing salmonella?
- When cooking, wash your hands, cutting boards, utensils, and countertops after they have been in contact with raw meat or poultry. Wash your hands in between handling different kinds of food (meat and vegetables, for example).
- Wash fresh vegetables and fruit thoroughly before eating.
- Cook food to the recommended safe temperature:
- 145°F for roasts
- 160°F for ground meats
- 165°F for all poultry
- Keep the refrigerator below 40°F.
- Put prepared food in the refrigerator within 30 minutes after eating.
- Keep foods that can spoil refrigerated.
- Put fresh foods in the refrigerator promptly after grocery shopping.
- Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
- Do not eat or drink foods containing raw eggs or raw (unpasteurized) milk.
- Wash your hands with soap after handling snakes, lizards, or other reptiles; birds; or baby chicks.
- Do not allow an infant or person with a weak immune system to touch reptiles or their environment.
When is it time to call the doctor if I have salmonella?
Call the doctor if:
- Illness lasts longer than a few days
- Diarrhea is severe or bloody
- A fever over 101.5°F that lasts longer than a day
- The sick person is at risk for severe salmonella:
- a person age 65 or older
- an infant
- someone with a weak immune system
- somone with inflammatory bowel disease
- US Food and Drug Administration. Be Salmonella Safe! Accessed 1/17/2015
- Centers for Disease Control. Salmonella Accessed 1/17/2015.
- National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Accessed 1/17/2015.
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition.
This document was last reviewed on: 03/11/2015