What Is Salmonella?

It’s summer, and like many people, maybe you want to celebrate with a picnic. Perhaps some of your favorites -- like fried chicken and deviled eggs – are served. But when you get up the next morning, you feel sick to your stomach and have diarrhea.

You might have a salmonella infection.

The infection itself is called “salmonellosis.” But most people know it by the name salmonella, which is actually the name of the bacteria that causes the infection.

Along with having the runs when you go to the bathroom, you can also have a fever, along with pain and cramping in your stomach. Most people who get salmonella get better on their own, at home, within 4 to 7 days.

Sources of Salmonella

There are many possible sources of a salmonella infection. Some of them are:

Meat. Some of our favorite proteins to cook and eat have the bacteria. They include:

  • Poultry (chicken, turkey, or duck)
  • Beef and veal
  • Pork

Fertilizer. The most common way to get salmonella is by eating meat or eggs or drinking milk that’s contaminated. But you can also get it by eating fruits or vegetables that have been in contact with manure from animals that have it.

Animal poop is often used in fertilizer for fruits and vegetables, which is how produce such as lettuce, spinach, or strawberries can also be a source of salmonella in people.

Water. Produce can be contaminated another way, too. While animal poop is still the culprit, it’s not because of manure being put directly on the fields, but contaminated water used to help the produce grow.

Cooking. If you cook a lot at home, the way you prepare your food could also be a source of your infection.

If you let juices from contaminated chicken or steak come into contact with your lettuce or spinach salad, you could get sick.

Handwashing. If you go to the bathroom but don’t wash your hands well, you could get an infection. If you change your baby’s stinky diaper and forget to wash your hands after, you might contract a salmonella infection, too.

Pets. Some that may carry the bacteria include:

  • Dogs
  • Cats
  • Birds
  • Reptiles (such as lizards, snakes, and turtles)

You or your child could pet a dog or cat and, without knowing it, touch poop hidden in fur. If you then put your fingers in your mouth, you could get an infection.

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How Common Is It?

Salmonella infections (also often referred to, generally, as food poisoning) are quite common. Throughout the world, tens of millions of cases are reported every year.

Most people get over it without treatment, but some cases are so severe people need to go to the hospital. In rare cases it’s life-threatening.

Infections are more common in the summer than the winter – after all, people host more picnics when it’s hot than cold.

Children are more likely than adults to get an infection. In addition to young children, older adults and people with weak immune systems are most likely to be infected.

Symptoms

Most of the symptoms you’ll have from a salmonella infection will be stomach-related:

Even though most symptoms usually don’t last more than a week, in some cases it can take several months for your bowel movements to get back to normal.

Possible Complications

A small number of people who get a salmonella infection get pain in their joints. You might hear a doctor or nurse call it reactive arthritis. This can last for several months, or even longer.

If you get this joint pain, you also could develop pain while peeing or your eyes could get sore, get itchy, or sting.

Dehydration can be problem with this because you’ve lost too much fluid from having runny and watery poop. Signs of dehydration include:

If the salmonella infection gets into your blood, it can infect your body’s tissues, such as:

  • The tissues around your brain and spinal cord
  • The lining of your heart or heart valves
  • Your bones or bone marrow
  • The lining of blood vessels

These infections can lead to serious diseases.

When Should I Call a Doctor?

If you have a salmonella infection, it usually goes away on its own after a few days. But if you still are having symptoms more than a week after first getting the infection, you might want to see a doctor.

If a young child, older adult, or person with a weakened immune system has an infection, they should see a doctor if they have any of these symptoms for more than a couple of days:

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Diagnosis and Tests

Your doctor may want you to have blood tests, or he might want a stool sample.

Sometimes, the doctor may want to do further testing to help figure the exact kind of bacteria you have. This can help health officials trace the source if there is an outbreak in your area.

Treatments

For healthy adults: If you have diarrhea with your salmonella infection, you should drink a lot of water and other fluids. Your doctor might suggest you drink a rehydration liquid, like Pedialyte, if your diarrhea is severe.

If your doctor confirms that you have a salmonella infection, he might prescribe antibiotics. You need to be sure you finish the prescription and take it exactly as directed.

For children: If your child has a healthy immune system, the doctor may not prescribe any treatment, but rather let the infection run its course. But if your kid has a bad fever, you may want to give her acetaminophen (Tylenol). And, as with adults, she’ll need lots of water.

In special cases: Infants, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems may need antibiotics. Doctors decide this on a case-by-case basis. There are several types of the bacteria that have become resistant, meaning they can’t be stopped by antibiotics.

Prevention

Even though salmonella can hide in a variety of foods, you can do a lot of things yourself to help ensure the sneaky bacteria doesn’t invade your gut:

  • Avoid eating raw or barely cooked eggs.
  • Don’t eat raw or undercooked beef, pork, or poultry.
  • Refrigerate food properly, both before cooking it and after serving it.
  • Wash your hands well with soap and warm water before, and after, handling food.
  • Keep kitchen surfaces clean before preparing food on them.
  • Do not mix cooked food with raw food or use the same utensils to prepare them – for example, don’t use the same knife to slice mushrooms that you used to cut raw chicken, and use different plates or cutting boards to slice them on.
  • Cook each kind of meat to its correct minimum temperature.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after touching animals, their toys, and their bedding.
  • Wash raw fruits and vegetables well, and peel them if possible.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on December 20, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Salmonella.”

World Health Organization: “Salmonella (non-typhoidal).”

Foodsafety.org: “Sneaky Salmonella: It’s Common, Costly, and Preventable.”

Mayo Clinic: “Diseases and Conditions – Salmonella Infection.”

National Health Service (U.K.): “Salmonella infection.”

Kids Health from Nemours: “Salmonella Infections.”

Foodsafety.gov: “Salmonella.”

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