What You Need to Know About Salmonella

How to avoid food poisoning from this germ, which lives in animal feces.

Updated on February 9, 2022.

Salmonella is a type of bacteria that can cause food poisoning with an infection called salmonellosis. Named in honor of Daniel Salmon, a veterinarian and expert in animal infections whose work in the late 1800s helped lead to its discovery, Salmonella is responsible for a lot of illness. In the United States alone, it causes 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations, and over 400 deaths every year.

There are more than 2,500 types of Salmonella, but only around 100 cause human infections. In the U.S., the two most common are Typhimurium and Enteritidis. In less industrialized areas of the world, such as parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, a dangerous species called Salmonella typhi causes typhoid fever.

How do you get food poisoning from Salmonella?

You get salmonellosis by eating or drinking something that is contaminated by the bacteria, or by coming into contact with infected animals, their feces, or their environment. Many animals shed the bacteria in their feces. If a tiny—even imperceptible—trace of contaminated feces gets onto food that is then eaten by a human, that person can get sick.

The most common culprit foods are chicken, beef, eggs, and unpasteurized dairy products. But fruits, vegetables, and even processed foods like peanut butter can also come into contact with the bacteria. Transmission occurs either when you eat the meat of an infected animal or its byproducts, like eggs or unpasteurized milk. Raw cookie dough and other unpasteurized foods with raw egg can transmit the infection as well.

Cooking kills the bacteria, but if even a tiny amount escapes being cooked—say, if you set a fork down on a contaminated cutting board, then eat using the fork—it can make you sick.

Salmonella can also be transmitted from a person carrying the bacteria if they prepare your food without properly washing their hands. Plants grown from contaminated seeds or exposed to contaminated fertilizers or water may also lead to infection.

Certain pets can give you Salmonella, too. Turtles, lizards, and amphibians harbor the bacteria on their skin. Reptiles in your home can spread it through their feces as well, meaning anything they touch can become infectious. In addition to reptiles, cases of salmonellosis have been linked to pet hedgehogs.

“Kids, especially boys, like reptiles a lot and like to handle them, but they’re not really great about washing their hands,” says Sarah Park, MD, the former State Epidemiologist and Chief of the Disease Outbreak Control Division in the State of Hawaii.

Signs and symptoms

Anyone can get salmonellosis. Symptoms typically appear about 12 to 72 hours after infection and include diarrhea that may contain blood, stomach cramps, vomiting, and fever. Those who are more vulnerable can develop severe symptoms, including dehydration that requires intravenous fluids.

Severe infections occur more frequently in infants and young children, seniors, and people with weakened immune systems.

In serious cases, a Salmonella infection can spread to other areas of the body. If it reaches the bloodstream, it can catch a ride to other parts of the body. Other organs can become infected including the bones, joints, or linings of the brain and spinal cord.

You need to see a healthcare provider (HCP) if you suspect food poisoning and you develop concerning symptoms, like:

  • Dehydration
  • High fever
  • Inability to drink fluids due to vomiting
  • Diarrhea lasting five days
  • Severe abdominal pain

Diagnosis and treatment

Though eating a suspicious food and having classic symptoms can suggest salmonellosis, a lab has to analyze a stool sample in order to be sure. It may sound gross to collect a sample of your own poop, but Dr. Park says many infections don’t get counted because people don’t get diagnosed.

That means a single verified infection could indicate there are many more—even an outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitors cases of Salmonella infection nationwide, so it can track down the source of outbreaks.

People typically recover from salmonellosis on their own within two to seven days, but dehydration is a risk. Make sure you drink plenty of fluids and get enough electrolytes. If you can’t keep fluids down, you need to go to a hospital for IV fluids. Check with an HCP before taking any over-the-counter medications. Some anti-diarrheal medicines may actually prolong diarrhea caused by Salmonella.

Since Salmonella is a bacterial infection, you might be wondering if antibiotics are a good idea. The answer is, not usually. They won’t ease your symptoms and may actually cause you to shed the bacteria in your stool for longer, making you more likely to sicken others or potentially have a relapse. Treatment with antibiotics is usually only recommended for people with a severe infection, such as one that has entered the bloodstream, or for people at high risk of complications, such as seniors, infants, or people with a weakened immune system.

How to avoid infection

There are several ways to avoid a Salmonella infection:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds, especially after using the bathroom, handling pets, or changing diapers, and before preparing food.
  • Cook meat thoroughly. Poultry needs to reach an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, ground meat 160 degrees, and pork and steaks 145 degrees.
  • Keep pets healthy and their habitats clean. The healthier the pet, the less likely they will carry Salmonella.
  • Don’t drink untreated water.
  • Consider that cutting boards, utensils, or countertops that have touched foods, particularly raw meat, are potentially contaminated. Wash them in hot, soapy water. Consider using separate cutting boards for raw meat.
  • Don’t drink unpasteurized milk or eat undercooked meat or raw eggs.
  • Keep food refrigerated after purchase, including eggs from a farmer’s market.
  • Wash fresh produce before use.
  • Separate cooked foods from raw foods.
  • Chill foods directly after serving them.

Remember that you can transmit the bacteria while you’re infected. Wait till you’ve been free of vomiting and diarrhea for 48 hours before you go back to work. If you work in the food industry or are a healthcare worker, talk to an HCP before you return to work. Public health agencies need to know in order to protect others.

“Just be mindful, because no one wants to get sick,” says Park. “Salmonella is not something you want.”

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Salmonella. Page last reviewed: February 2, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Serotypes and the Importance of Serotyping Salmonella. Page last reviewed February 21, 2020.
Boore AL, Hoekstra RM, Iwamoto M, Fields PI, Bishop RD, Swerdlow DL. Salmonella enterica Infections in the United States and Assessment of Coefficients of Variation: A Novel Approach to Identify Epidemiologic Characteristics of Individual Serotypes, 1996-2011. PLoS One. 2015;10(12):e0145416. Published 2015 Dec 23.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Typhoid Fever and Paratyphoid Fever. Prevention Tips for Travelers. Page last reviewed May 19, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Outbreak of Salmonella Infections Linked to Pet Hedgehogs. Page last reviewed January 13, 2021.
New York State Department of Health. Salmonella Infection from Frogs, Turtles and Lizards. Revised August 2011.
Mayo Clinic. Salmonella infection. October 11, 2019.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationally Notifiable Diseases. Page last reviewed February 20, 2019.
Cleveland Clinic. Food Poisoning. Last reviewed December 16, 2019.

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