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Salmonella is a food-borne illness that causes nausea, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, or worse.

An undercooked egg may carry the Salmonella bacteria. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
An undercooked egg may carry the Salmonella bacteria.


Salmonella poisoning is the most commonly reported cause of food-borne illnesses in the United States. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that there are roughly 40,000 cases of salmonellosis reported every year. Salmonella is a family of bacteria that lives in the intestinal tracks of infected humans and animals, though salmonella affects humans and animals differently. Certain strains of salmonella, for example, could make animals sick but be asymptomatic in humans. However, it is possible for humans to contract salmonella from infected animals.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, more than 2,300 types of bacteria belong to the salmonella family. Dr. Daniel E. Salmon, an American scientist, discovered salmonella bacteria more than 100 years ago while he was researching the cause of hog cholera, a viral disease that attacks pigs. These microscopic organisms can't be detected without a microscope and don't alter the taste, appearance or smell of food, making salmonella poisoning a constant concern for those handling and preparing food.

Causes of Salmonella

Salmonella is passed through the feces of infected humans and animals. Even after leaving the intestinal track, salmonella remains extremely contagious. Exposure to salmonella occurs when trace amounts of feces are ingested. Common carriers of salmonella are humans, dogs and cats, rodents, reptiles and farm animals. Approximately 90 percent of reptiles, including pet snakes, iguanas and turtles, carry salmonella, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Humans most frequently become infected after ingesting contaminated foods.] Common food culprits include raw or undercooked poultry, meat and eggs. Humans are vulnerable to three types of salmonella bacteria: S. enteritidis, S. typhi and S. choleraesuis. These three strains are impervious to stomach acid and attach themselves to the lining of the small intestine. In addition to poultry, meat and eggs, salmonella bacteria can reside in water, ice and sewage. Freezing contaminated food and water doesn't kill salmonella and the bacteria can survive in a frozen environment for months.

Symptoms of Salmonella

Most people who become infected with salmonella develop nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping and diarrhea 12 to 72 hours after exposure. Other symptoms include fever, chills and muscle pain. A tender abdomen and pink spots on the skin are also indicators of a salmonella infection. A doctor can confirm the presence of salmonella with a stool sample. Many patients recover from salmonella poisoning in four to seven days.

How to Prevent Salmonella

Prevent food from becoming contaminated by taking the following precautions:

  • Keep dairy adequately refrigerated
  • Store eggs at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or below
  • Avoid eating dirty or cracked eggs
  • Keep raw meat away from cooked meat and produce
  • Thoroughly cook eggs, meat and poultry
  • Don't eat foods that contain raw egg, such as cookie dough
  • Wash hands and utensils after handling raw foods
  • Eat food immediately after it's prepared
  • Sterilize baby bottles in very hot water and dispose of unused formula and breast milk


Thorough hand washing after exposure to human and animal feces prevents accidental ingestion of the bacteria. The University of Maryland Medical Center also recommends wearing gloves while handling reptiles to prevent the spread of salmonella.

How to Treat Salmonella

There is no prescribed treatment for a salmonella infection. The immune system must fight off the infection, so it's important to treat the symptoms and get plenty of rest. Because of vomiting and diarrhea, dehydration is typically the greatest concern during a salmonella infection. However, dehydration can easily be avoided by increasing one's fluid intake. In extreme cases, intravenous fluids could be necessary.

Eating foods that are easy on the digestive track, such as bananas, rice, apples and toast, can help ease the gastrointestinal discomfort. An anti-diarrheal medication may also ease some of the discomfort as well as prevent dehydration.

Antibiotics might be necessary if the infection spreads beyond the intestines. Some strands of salmonella have become resistant to antibiotics, though, because of the practice of using of antibiotics to promote growth in animals raised for food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Long-term Effects of Salmonella

For most people with a healthy immune system, salmonella causes no long-term effects or complications. Some people recovering from a salmonella infection could experience bowel irritation for several months. A small number of infected people develop Reiter's syndrome, which is commonly characterized by painful urination, joint pain and eye irritation. Although affected people typically recover from Reiter's syndrome within several months to several years, it can eventually lead to arthritis.

People with weakened immune systems, particularly infants, transplant recipients and the elderly, are more vulnerable to complications as a result of a salmonella infection. In rare cases, these complications can be life threatening. Severe dehydration can be especially dangerous for infants and the elderly. A salmonella infection that spreads beyond the intestinal track can cause meningitis, a blood infection or a bone infection. If antibiotics aren't immediately administered, other parts of the body could become affected by the infection.

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