Salmonella is a family of bacteria responsible for numerous cases of gastrointestinal illness every year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Salmonella causes 1.35 million infections and 420 deaths annually in the United States.

Children under 5 years old are the most at-risk group for salmonella infections, also known as salmonellosis. Infection is spread through contaminated food and water, or from coming in contact with feces or an animal carrying the bacteria.

Wondering whether your child has contracted Salmonella, and what to do if they have? Here’s what you need to know.

Allowing your young child to explore their environment is a wonderful way to support their development. However, all the touching and feeling little ones do puts them at higher risk of encountering Salmonella bacteria.

When a child touches something in their environment that harbors Salmonella bacteria (such as a pet, backyard chickens, or a dirty diaper), then puts their fingers in their mouth, the bacteria can cause infection. Diarrhea is typically the primary symptom.

Consuming contaminated food or beverages is another common source of salmonella infection in young children.

“The most common foods that can have Salmonella are raw meat, including poultry, raw egg or undercooked eggs, and unpasteurized milk,” pediatrician Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, MD, says.

Since kids’ immune systems are still developing, they may have a harder time fighting off infection.

How can you tell whether your child is sick with salmonellosis or another stomach illness?

Watch for these symptoms, which can occur within 6 hours to 6 days of encountering Salmonella bacteria:

Salmonellosis in children can lead to hospitalization and, in rare cases, death. This is why it’s so important to take symptoms seriously.

“Infection can cause serious illness, including infection in urine, blood, bones, joints, or the nervous system (spinal fluid or brain),” Poinsett says.

However, for most kids, the side effects and risks of salmonellosis are less severe. According to Poinsett, the main risk is dehydration.

Keeping your child hydrated through a bout of salmonella gastroenteritis is critical, so be sure to provide fluids throughout the day.

Watching your child experience abdominal pain, frequent diarrhea, and other unpleasant symptoms can be a very scary thing.

If your little one is sick with a gastrointestinal illness, you never have to feel bad about contacting their pediatrician. Even if you don’t end up needing a doctor’s visit, simply talking with a medical professional can provide much-needed peace of mind.

That said, under some circumstances, getting medical attention is absolutely necessary.

“Parents should contact their pediatrician if their child has vomiting and diarrhea, or if they are unable to keep down fluids,” Poinsett advises.

When are salmonellosis symptoms a medical emergency?

Salmonella infection can become life threatening in young children, so stay watchful of your child’s symptoms. Poinsett says to call emergency medical services or take your child to the nearest emergency room if they:

  • have bloody stools
  • are unable to keep fluids down
  • show signs of dehydration, such as:
    • headache
    • decreased tear and urine production
    • dry mouth
    • fatigue
    • sunken eyes

Because a host of childhood illnesses can come with symptoms like diarrhea and fever, your child’s doctor will perform tests to determine whether they have a salmonella infection.

Testing for a salmonella infection includes stool, blood, and urine cultures. To pinpoint the source of infection, a doctor will likely also do the following:

  • review what your child has eaten and drunk in the last several days
  • ask questions about exposure to certain pets, like lizards, turtles, snakes, or chickens
  • ask whether other family members have also become ill

You can often manage salmonella gastroenteritis treatment at home.

“The primary treatment for salmonella infection is supportive, including fluid replacement,” Poinsett says. “Antibiotics are used mainly for children under 12 months of age and immunocompromised children. Antibiotics used include azithromycin and ceftriaxone.”

There are steps you can take to lower the chances of your child contracting a salmonella infection.

Always have children wash hands with warm, soapy water after handling:

  • chickens
  • reptiles
  • amphibians
  • rodents

Try to keep your kiddo from giving kisses to any animals.

Since Salmonella often spreads in the kitchen, it’s also critical to prepare food safely. Cook meats, poultry, and eggs thoroughly. Wash hands after handling these foods raw.

And, of course, wash your hands thoroughly after diaper changes, using the bathroom, or cleaning pet waste.

If your child has come down with salmonellosis, you probably have lots of concerns. Here are several commonly asked questions.

How long does pediatric salmonella gastroenteritis last?

Most cases of pediatric salmonella gastroenteritis last about 4 to 7 days. However, some infections can linger for several weeks.

Can pets or backyard chickens spread Salmonella?

Cute as your pet iguana or backyard birds may be, they’re a potential source of salmonella infection. According to the CDC, direct contact with turtles, iguanas, and chickens has been linked to human infection.

Again, children should always wash their hands thoroughly after touching or playing with these animals.

Dogs and cats can also be carriers of Salmonella bacteria. Be sure to keep pet waste away from children and avoid letting your child give kisses to these pets.

When is pediatric salmonella gastroenteritis a medical emergency?

If your child is having bloody stool or is unable to keep fluids down at all, seek emergency medical care.

Serious signs of dehydration also warrant a visit to the emergency room. These signs include:

  • high fever
  • seizures
  • inability to urinate
  • dizziness
  • a rapid pulse

With time, fluids, and a bit of TLC, most kids will be on the road to recovery from a salmonella infection. If symptoms like diarrhea, stomach cramps, and fatigue worsen, though, don’t hesitate to contact your pediatrician.