Salmonella is a type of bacteria that causes an infection of your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. In some cases, it can spread to other areas of your body and cause serious illness.
Although most people recover from a Salmonella infection without treatment, it’s possible to become very ill or even die from it.
Who’s most at risk from Salmonella infection? How do you get the infection, and what are its symptoms? Continue reading as we answer these questions and more.
The following groups are at a higher risk for death or serious complications due to Salmonella infection:
Salmonella is a rod-shaped bacteria that can be found in the GI tracts of humans and animals. It’s shed from the body via feces.
Antibiotic resistance does occur in Salmonella. In fact, between 2009 and 2011, Salmonella isolates —cultures of microorganisms — with resistance to five or more antibiotics accounted for
A specific Salmonella bacterium can also cause typhoid fever, a serious disease that’s more common outside of the United States.
However, this species — Salmonella typhi — is different from the ones that cause gastroenteritis.
Foods that commonly lead to Salmonella infection include:
- raw or undercooked meat, poultry, or seafood
- raw or undercooked eggs or egg products
- raw or unpasteurized dairy products, such as milk or cheeses
- uncooked fruits and vegetables
- contaminated water
These items can be contaminated with feces during the food production or preparation process. Cross-contamination between foods can also occur if they’re stored or served together.
There are a few other ways that you can get Salmonella infection, including:
- person-to-person through the fecal-oral route, which can occur if you don’t wash your hands after using the bathroom
- touching a contaminated object or surface and then touching your face or mouth
- through contact with infected pets or farm animals, particularly reptiles and birds
- by handling contaminated pet foods or pet treats, such as
Food safety tips
Follow the food safety tips below to help reduce your risk of acquiring Salmonella:
- Wash your hands with soap and warm water. Be sure to do this before, during, and after handling food as well as before eating.
- Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them.
- Cook foods to the proper temperature. In general, to kill Salmonella bacteria, food must be
cookedto at least 160 degrees for at least 10 minutes. Use a food thermometer to check the food temperature before eating.
- Avoid cross-contamination. Always keep raw foods that could be contaminated with Salmonella separate from other ready-to-eat foods both in your refrigerator and while preparing food.
- Don’t let food sit out. If you’re not using it, be sure to place it in the refrigerator to prevent the multiplication of bacteria. Also, thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator or in cold water and not on the countertop.
The symptoms of Salmonella typically appear within 3 days of infection. They can include:
There are several complications that can occur due to Salmonella infection. These can be particularly dangerous for groups at higher risk like:
- older adults
- young children
- people with a weakened immune system
The persistent diarrhea associated with Salmonella can lead to excess fluid loss and dehydration.
When diagnosed with severe dehydration, hospitalization may be required to help you replace missing fluids and electrolytes.
Sometimes Salmonella bacteria can leave the GI tract and enter another part of the body, causing a potentially serious or life-threatening infection. Invasive infections caused by Salmonella can include:
- bacteremia, which occurs when Salmonella bacteria enter the bloodstream and can lead to septic shock
- meningitis: which is an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord
- endocarditis, which is an inflammation of the lining that surrounds the heart
- osteomyelitis, which is a bone infection
- septic arthritis, which is an infection of a joint
Reactive arthritis, which is also called Reiter’s syndrome, can be caused by salmonella infection. Individuals with reactive arthritis develop joint pain. They may also experience painful urination and eye irritation.
In order to diagnose Salmonella, your doctor will first perform a physical examination and request your medical history.
They’ll ask about things like:
- your symptoms
- how long you’ve had them
- whether you have any underlying conditions
Where possible, doctors will perform susceptibility testing on the bacteria that’s causing your infection before prescribing an antibiotic. This can help them determine which medication may be most effective.
Because the diarrhea associated with Salmonella infection can lead to potentially serious dehydration, treatment focuses on replacing lost fluids and electrolytes. At home, you can accomplish this by doing the following:
- drinking water
- sucking on ice chips
- providing children with a rehydration solution like Pedialyte
People with severe dehydration may need to be hospitalized. In this case, you’ll receive missing fluids and electrolytes via intravenous (IV) rehydration.
Avoid taking anti-diarrheal medication while you have Salmonella. It may increase the length of time that it takes for stool to move through your GI tract. It can also make your diarrhea last longer.
Salmonella doesn’t always require antibiotics treatment, but your doctor may prescribe them in some situations. These include if you:
- have a very serious infection with severe diarrhea and high fever
- have an invasive infection, such as bacteremia or meningitis
- are in a group that’s at high risk of complications or life-threatening illness due to Salmonella infection
When to see your doctor
Be sure to see your doctor if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- blood in your stool
- diarrhea that’s lasted more 3 days
- fever that’s over 102°F
- vomiting that’s preventing you from keeping liquids down
- symptoms of dehydration such as dry mouth and little or no urination
Getting prompt treatment can help you to prevent dangerous or life-threatening complications, particularly if you’re in a high-risk group.
Most people with Salmonella recover without treatment. Typically, the illness lasts between 4 and 7 days. However, you could find that it takes a few months for your bowel habits to return to normal.
If you’re prescribed antibiotics, you may begin to feel better within a few days. However, always make sure to take the complete course of medication as prescribed or the infection may not completely clear.
Antibiotic resistance can be a problem with Salmonella. If what you’ve initially been prescribed doesn’t work to clear your infection, you may be prescribed a different antibiotic.
Some groups of people are more susceptible to serious illness or even death from Salmonella infection due to things like severe dehydration and invasive infections. These groups are:
- older adults
- infants and young children
- pregnant women
- those with a weakened immune system
- people with chronic conditions
If you’re in a high-risk group, it’s important that you seek prompt treatment if you suspect Salmonella.
Depending on your condition, you may need to be hospitalized so that healthcare professionals can closely monitor your treatment and recovery.
Although an infection with Salmonella can often clear without treatment, it can lead to serious illness or death in some groups of people.
Often, this is due to severe dehydration or the infection spreading to other areas of your body.
Groups that are at a higher risk for serious illness include:
- older adults
- young children
- people with a compromised immune system
People in these groups need to seek prompt diagnosis and treatment to help prevent potentially life-threatening illnesses.