Certain bacteria in the group Salmonella cause salmonella food poisoning. These bacteria live in the intestines of humans and animals. Human infection results when food or water that has been contaminated with infected feces is ingested.
A gastrointestinal salmonella infection usually affects the small intestine. It is also called salmonella enterocolitis or enteric salmonellosis. It’s one of the most common types of food poisoning.
Around 19,000 people are hospitalized with salmonella food poisoning every year in the United States. It’s most common in people under 20 years old. It’s also more likely to occur in the summer months because the Salmonella bacterium grows better in warm weather.
Eating food or drinking any liquid contaminated with certain species of Salmonella bacteria causes salmonella food poisoning. People are usually infected by eating raw foods or prepared foods that have been handled by others.
Salmonella is often spread when people don’t wash (or improperly wash) their hands after using the toilet. It can also be spread by handling pets, especially reptiles and birds. Thorough cooking or pasteurization kills Salmonella bacteria. You’re at risk when you consume raw, undercooked, or unpasteurized items.
Salmonella food poisoning is commonly caused by:
- undercooked chicken, turkey, or other poultry
- undercooked eggs
- unpasteurized milk or juice
- contaminated raw fruits, vegetables, or nuts
A number of factors can increase your risk of salmonella infection, including:
- having family members with salmonella food poisoning
- having a pet reptile or bird (they can carry Salmonella)
- living in group housing such as dorms or nursing homes, where you’re regularly exposed to many people and food preparation by others
- traveling to developing countries where sanitation is poor and hygienic standards are sub-standard
If you have a weakened immune system, you’re more likely than others to become infected with Salmonella.
The symptoms of salmonella food poisoning often come on quickly, usually within 8 to 72 hours after consuming contaminated food or water. Symptoms may be aggressive and can last for up to 48 hours.
Typical symptoms during this acute stage include:
- abdominal pain, cramping, or tenderness
- muscle pain
- signs of dehydration (such as decreased or dark-colored urine, dry mouth, and low energy)
- bloody stool
Dehydration caused by diarrhea is a serious concern, especially in children and infants. The very young can become severely dehydrated in just one day. This can lead to death.
To diagnose salmonella food poisoning, your doctor will do a physical examination. They may check if your abdomen is tender. They may look for a rash with small pink dots on your skin. If these dots are accompanied by a high fever, they may indicate a serious form of salmonella infection called typhoid fever.
Your doctor may also do a blood test or stool culture. This is to look for actual evidence and samples of Salmonella bacteria in your body.
The main treatment for salmonella food poisoning is replacing fluids and electrolytes that you lose when you have diarrhea. Adults should drink water or suck on ice cubes. Your pediatrician may suggest rehydration drinks such as Pedialyte for children.
In addition, modify your diet to include only easily digestible foods. Bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast are good options. You should avoid dairy products and get plenty of rest. This allows your body to fight the infection.
If nausea prevents you from drinking liquids, you may need to see your doctor and receive intravenous (IV) fluids. Young children may also need IV fluids.
Typically, antibiotics and medication to stop your diarrhea aren’t recommended. These treatments can prolong the “carrier state” and the infection, respectively. The “carrier state” is the period of time during and after the infection when you can transmit the infection to another person. You should consult with your doctor about medications for symptom management. In severe or life-threatening cases, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.
To help prevent salmonella food poisoning:
- Handle food properly. Cook foods to recommended internal temperatures, and refrigerate leftovers promptly.
- Clean counters before and after preparing high-risk foods.
- Wash your hands thoroughly (especially when handling eggs or poultry).
- Use separate utensils for raw and cooked items.
- Keep foods refrigerated before cooking.
- If you own a reptile or bird, wear gloves or wash your hands thoroughly after handling.
People who have salmonella and work in the food service industry should not return to work until they haven’t had diarrhea for at least 48 hours.
For healthy people, symptoms should go away within two to seven days. However, the bacteria can stay in the body longer. This means that even if you aren’t experiencing symptoms, you can still infect other people with Salmonella bacteria.