Salmonella Food Poisoning (Salmonella Enterocolitis)

Written by Amber Erickson Gabbey | Published on June 15, 2012
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP

Salmonella Food Poisoning

Salmonella food poisoning is an infection in the small intestine. It is also called salmonella enterocolitis or salmonellosis. It is one of the most common types of food poisoning, and is caused by the bacteria group Salmonella. These bacteria live in the intestines of humans and animals. Infection results when food is eaten that has been infected with animal feces. Around 40,000 people in the United States develop salmonella each year. (NIH) It is most common in people under 20 years old and is more likely to occur in the summer months because the Salmonella bacterium grows better in warm weather.

What Causes Salmonella Food Poisoning?

Eating food or drinking water or any liquid contaminated with Salmonella bacteria causes this kind of food poisoning. People are usually infected by eating raw foods or prepared foods that have been handled by others with bacteria on their hands. Salmonella is often spread when people do not wash (or improperly wash) their hands after using the toilet or handling pets, especially reptiles and birds.

Thorough cooking or pasteurization kills Salmonella bacteria. You are at risk when you consume raw, uncooked, 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. This is because you are regularly exposed to many people, and food in these kinds of institutions is often prepared with eggs and ground meat from various sources.
  • traveling to developing countries where sanitation is poor and hygienic standards are sub-standard. If you have a weakened immune system, you are more likely than others to become infected with Salmonella.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Salmonella Food Poisoning

The symptoms of salmonella food poisoning often come on quickly and aggressively, and last for up to 48 hours. Typical symptoms during this acute stage include:

Dehydration, caused by diarrhea, is a serious concern with salmonella, especially in children and infants. The very young can become severely dehydrated in just one day, and this can lead to death.

Diagnosing Salmonella Food Poisoning

To diagnose salmonella food poisoning, your doctor will do a physical examination. He or she may check if your abdomen is tender or for a skin rash which presents as small pink dots on your skin. Accompanied by a high fever, these dots 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.

Preventing Salmonella Food Poisoning

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 hands thoroughly after handling.

Treating Salmonella Food Poisoning

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. For children, your pediatrician may suggest rehydration drinks such as Pedialyte. In addition, modify your diet to include only simple, easily digestible foods (such as bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast) and avoid dairy products. It is also important to get plenty of rest and allow your body to fight the infection.

If nausea prevents drinking liquids, you may need to see your doctor and receive intravenous (IV) fluids. Young children may also need IV fluids.

Typically, medication to stop your diarrhea is not recommended because it can prolong the infection. However, you may take over-the-counter pain relievers to help with body aches. In severe cases, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.

Salmonella Food Poisoning Outlook

For healthy people, symptoms should go away within two to seven days. However, the bacteria stay within the body longer. The illness stays with you for one to two weeks. Some people are still carriers of the bacteria for a year or more after the acute stage.

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