Salmonella Symptoms & Food Poisoning

Salmonellosis is an infection caused a bacterium called Salmonella. One of the most common foodborne illnesses, it occurs when food contaminated by Salmonella is consumed. Most people infected with Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12-72 hours after infection.

According to the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are an estimated 1.4 million cases in the United States each year, with more than 500 of those cases resulting in death. The elderly, infants, and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to suffer severe illness.

What are the symptoms of Salmonella foodborne illness?

Symptoms of Salmonella infection may include diarrhea (sometimes bloody), abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, headache, muscle pain, and joint pain. Symptoms usually appear 12-72 hours after the ingestion of contaminated food. The illness usually lasts 4-7 days, and most people recover without treatment. Individuals with diarrhea usually recover completely, although it may be several months before their bowel habits are entirely normal.
Although most people with salmonellosis will recover completely, in a small percentage, a condition known as Reiter’s Syndrome, or “reactive arthritis,” may develop. Reiter’s Syndrome is characterized by joint pain, eye irritation (conjunctivitis), and painful urination. Symptoms may appear from 1-3 weeks following infection, and every symptom may not appear at the same time. While most joints can be affected, pain and inflammation are most commonly experienced in the fingers, toes, ankles, knees, and hips.
Although most commonly caused by Salmonella, Reiter’s Syndrome is also associated with gastroenteritis caused by other bacteria such as Camplobacter and Shigella. Most people with Reiter’s Syndrome will recover within a year; however, this syndrome can lead to chronic arthritis.

How are Salmonella infections caused?

Salmonella live in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals, including birds. The infection is usually transmitted to humans through the consumption of foods or beverages contaminated with animal feces, or by contact with infected animals. Contaminated foods usually appear, taste, and smell normal. Foods most often contaminated by Salmonella are usually of animal origin, such as beef, poultry, fish, milk, or eggs. However, all foods, including fruits and vegetables, may become contaminated. The unwashed hands of an infected food handler may also contaminate food.
Salmonella food poisoning can also occur as a result of cross-contamination. For example, juices from raw meat or poultry left behind on a cutting board can contaminate fruit or vegetables if the board is not properly washed before their preparation.

Salmonella may also be found in the feces of some pets, especially those with diarrhea. People can become infected if they do not wash their hands after contact with these feces. Salmonellosis can also occur after handling reptiles, such as turtles, lizards, and snakes, since even healthy reptiles are likely to carry Salmonella. Hands should be washed immediately after handling a reptile, and adults should make sure that children wash their hands after handling a reptile.

How is Salmonella infection diagnosed and treated?

According to the CDC, determining that Salmonella is the cause of illness depends on laboratory tests that identify Salmonella in the stools of an infected person. These tests are sometimes not performed unless the laboratory is instructed specifically to look for the organism. Once Salmonella has been identified, further testing can determine the specific serotype and the proper antibiotics to be used to treat it.

The CDC also reports that Salmonella infections usually resolve in 4-7 days and often do not require treatment, unless the patient becomes severely dehydrated or the infection spreads from the intestines to the bloodstream (septicemia) and then to other parts of the body. Individuals with severe diarrhea may require rehydration with intravenous fluids. Antibiotics are not usually necessary unless the infection spreads from the intestines. In these cases, it can be treated with ampicillin, gentamicin, trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole, or ciprofloxacin.

Are there complications with Salmonella infection?

While most people recover within 4-7 days, diarrhea may become so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized. In more severe cases, the Salmonella infection may spread from the intestines to the blood stream and other body sites. This can result in death, unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics. The elderly, infants, and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to suffer severe illness.

A small number of people who are infected with Salmonella will go on to develop Reiter’s Syndrome, also referred to as “reactive arthritis.” This syndrome is characterized by joint pain, irritation of the eyes (conjunctivitis), and painful urination. It usually resolves within a year; however, it can lead to chronic arthritis

How can Salmonella infection be prevented?

Local and state health officials are responsible for investigating and reporting suspected foodborne outbreaks. By quickly reporting to your local health department that you or others have become ill as a result of eating the same food, health officials can begin investigating a suspected foodborne outbreak. The information they learn may help prevent additional cases of the reported illness and prevent future outbreaks.

With proper food handling and hygiene practices, the risk of contracting Salmonella food poisoning can be greatly reduced. Listed below are CDC recommendations for reducing the risk of salmonellosis:

  • Thorough cooking kills Salmonella. Cook poultry, ground beef, and eggs thoroughly before eating. Do not eat or drink foods containing raw eggs or non-pasteurized milk.
  • If you are served undercooked meat, poultry, or eggs in a restaurant, send it back to the kitchen for further cooking.
  • Wash hands, kitchen work surfaces, and utensils with soap and water immediately after they have been in contact with raw foods of animal origin.
  • Be particularly careful with foods prepared for infants, the elderly, and the immuno-compromised.
  • Wash hands with soap after handling reptiles or birds, or after contact with pet feces.
  • Avoid direct or even indirect contact between reptiles (turtles, iguanas, other lizards, snakes) and infants or immunocompromised individuals.
  • Do not work with raw poultry or meat and an infant (e.g., feeding, diaper changing) at the same time.
  • Mother’s milk is the safest food for young infants. Breast-feeding prevents salmonellosis and many other health problems.

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The information contained on this page has been gathered from the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and other sources in the public domain.

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