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What Is Salmonella?

It's a type of bacteria that can make you sick. It infects about 1.35 million people in the U.S. every year. Salmonella can be quite serious, especially for those who are very old, very young, or already sick. The illness sends thousands of people to the hospital each year. Sometimes it's life-threatening.

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How You Get It From Food

You most often get salmonella when you eat or drink something that has the bacteria in it. It's more common in food that comes from animals, like eggs, beef, and poultry. But soil or water can contaminate fruits and vegetables, too. You also can move the bacteria from one food to another with your hands or with knives, boards, platters, and other kitchen tools. You can get the infection if you don't cook certain foods well enough.

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How You Get It From Animals

Salmonella bacteria live in the gut of certain types of animals, especially:

  • Birds, such as chickens and turkeys
  • Amphibians, such as frogs, toads, and salamanders
  • Reptiles, such as snakes, lizards, and turtles

If poop from these animals gets on your hands, you might infect yourself or others. Human poop can spread the disease, too, which is why handwashing is so important after you go to the bathroom.

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Who Gets It

Salmonella doesn't sicken everyone who gets the bacteria into their body. Kids under age 5 are most likely to get it, and about a third of all cases happen in kids 4 or younger. Babies who aren't breastfed are more likely to get it. Certain medications, like those that lessen stomach acid, could also raise your chances of infection.

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Symptoms

You typically get diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps. You also may have headache, nausea, and vomiting. Symptoms start between 6 hours and 4 days after the bacteria infects you. You usually feel better in about a week, though it can take a few months for your bowel movements to return to normal. Sometimes infections spread to your blood, bones, joints, brain, or nervous system and cause long-term symptoms affecting those areas.

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When to Call the Doctor

Check with your doctor if you notice:

  • Blood in your bowel movement
  • Diarrhea with a fever more than 102 F
  • Diarrhea that doesn't get better after 3 days
  • Dehydration signs like dry mouth, low amounts of urine, and feeling dizzy when you stand
  • Vomiting so much that it's hard to stay hydrated
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Diagnosis

Many germs and illnesses can cause the typical symptoms of salmonella infection. To confirm you have it, your doctor will send a sample of your bowel movement to a lab. A technician then checks to see if salmonella is the culprit. If you are very ill, your doctor might ask you to take more tests to zero in on the exact type of salmonella bacteria.

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Treatment

If you're otherwise healthy, plenty of fluids and lots of rest are often all you need to make a full recovery within a week. But sometimes diarrhea is so bad you might need to go to the hospital for IV fluids and other treatment. You may need to call your doctor to rule out other problems if you have many symptoms and you're not sure that salmonella is the cause.

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The Problem With Antibiotics

Even though salmonella is caused by bacteria, antibiotics don't help you recover more quickly unless your immune system -- your body's defense against germs -- is weak or the infection has entered your blood. In many cases, antibiotic treatment can lengthen the time you carry the bacteria, and raise your chances of getting sick from the same infection again. 

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Possible Complications

Babies or young children are more likely to get serious health problems from salmonella. You also have greater chances of complications if you:

  • Have immune problems due to illness (like HIV)
  • Take drugs that curb your immune system
  • Have sickle cell disease
  • Take medication to manage stomach acid
  • Have spleen problems

In these cases, your doctor may suggest antibiotics to help prevent the most serious complications.

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Avoid Getting Sick From Your Pets

Wash your hands after you play with animals to protect yourself and others from infection. Kids younger than 5 shouldn't touch animals likely to carry salmonella, like turtles, frogs, chickens, or lizards. No one should eat or drink around these animals or their living areas. Go outside if possible to clean your pet's food bowls, toys, and bedding, or carefully disinfect the indoor area. Take your pet to the vet for regular checkups.  

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Prevent an Infection From Food

Follow these tips to cut your odds of getting salmonella from food:

  • Don't serve undercooked eggs, meat, or poultry.
  • Keep uncooked meats away from food that is already prepared.
  • Thoroughly wash all kitchen surfaces, boards, knives, and other tools after use.
  • Store food promptly in the fridge or freezer within an hour or two, even if it's been freshly prepared. 
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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 12/04/2019 Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on December 04, 2019

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SOURCES:

CDC: "Salmonella."

Mayo Clinic: "Salmonella Infection."

Medscape: "Salmonella Infection in Emergency Medicine Medication."

The Nemours Foundation: "Salmonella Infections."

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: "Salmonella and Food."

Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on December 04, 2019

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.