Salmonella is a family of bacteria and many different strains exist. The umbrella term salmonella refers to a type that is carried by animals such as cows, chicken, pigs and most species of reptiles and can trigger infection in humans. Typhoid fever is caused by the mush rarer bacteria Salmonella typhi.

Scientists have classified more than 2500 varieties of salmonella. Most of these are dangerous for human health and can start infections. The severity depends on the strain, some of them trigger serious infections while others only mild ones. The symptoms depend on other factors such as your personal health or the amount of bacteria ingested.

The feces of some animals, such as reptiles, include a number of dangerous salmonella bacteria. People who own reptile pets have to be careful, since handling the animals will contaminate their hands with bacteria that can reach food. Aliments contaminated with animal feces are the most common form of salmonella transmission to humans. Risky foods, for example eggs, chicken or beef, must be cooked properly in order to be safe for consumption. Bacteria living in soil and water can also contaminate vegetables and fruits.

Who is at risk for salmonella infections?

Ingesting salmonella doesn't automatically result in an infection; some people are more vulnerable than others. Infants and children have a much higher risk and about one third of the 50000 cases of salmonellosis reported in the United States every year are kids younger than 4 years old.

Besides babies, there are a number of other people who might develop very serious complication when exposed to salmonella. These include individuals suffering from HIV or other diseases that affect their immune system, patients with sickle cell disease and people without a spleen or one that doesn't function right. Some treatments can also increase the risk by making the immune system less effective, for example drugs that suppress chronic stomach acid or the ones used in the management of cancer.

In such cases, doctors usually prescribe antibiotics in order to contain the infection and stop it from expanding to other parts of the body. However, healthy people shouldn't use antibiotics at all. If the infection is mild, antibiotics appear to actually increase the healing period, without providing any benefits at all.

What are salmonella symptoms?

Infection with the Salmonella bacteria starts the disease also commonly known as salmonella. While contaminated food is the most common method of transmission, it is also possible to become infected after direct contact with animals. The actual symptoms can be light or severe, depending on several factors.

Since the infections starts in the stomach, cramps and diarrhea are the initial signs. Bloody diarrhea is not uncommon at this stage, while the other early symptoms include fever, nausea, vomiting and a general feeling of sickness. The incubation period is between 12 and 36 hours from the initial infestation, regardless of the cause. As already mentioned, the bacteria are usually ingested in food or after contact with animals.

Most people recover after 4 to 7 days without any specific treatment and the symptoms are not severe. In some cases, the symptoms are more serious and dangerous complications can develop. One of the most critical side effects is dehydration, or the lack of fluids inside the body. Dehydration can be lethal, you should go to a doctor immediately in such a case. It is especially dangerous for kids, even if mild forms are easily treated by just drinking a lot of fluids. The body's internal organs need liquids to function, so dehydration can kill you if ignored or not treated in time.

Salmonella attacks the interior of the stomach and its lining in particular. As a result, one of the first symptoms is nausea of various degrees of severity, from a minor digestive upset to severe pain and weakness. Salmonella is known to cause extreme nausea. The pain becomes unbearable and many patients can only take it for a few hours before going to an emergency room of a hospital. Very serious nausea is actually one off the trademarks of a salmonella infection. If you experience it, you should ask for medical advice and do some tests that can reveal the presence of salmonella.

A second typical sign of an early salmonella infection is diarrhea. Since diarrhea is a very common symptom that can be caused by numerous conditions, a salmonella infection is rarely actually considered in such cases. Very often, salmonella infestation is assumed to be just a minor stomach upset or bug, which makes it even more dangerous because it is allowed to progress untreated. If diarrhea is combined with some of the other symptoms of salmonella, you should visit a doctor just to be safe. It is very important that an infection is detected as early as possible.

Ingesting salmonella bacteria can sometimes cause vomiting, which is another warning sign of infection. However, just like diarrhea, vomiting is triggered by many conditions. It is easy for the stomach to become disturbed, for various causes. Besides actual diseases, vomiting can occur after strong emotions as well. Youngsters and elders often experience vomiting soon after contamination, so they should consider it a very serious warning sign. The most dangerous side effect at these ages is accelerated dehydration. Infected young and old people can lose fluids so fast that immediate treatment is needed, otherwise the outcome can be fatal.

Since salmonella infections start in the stomach, abdominal pain is yet another typical sign. The cause is a natural reaction of the human body, since bowels are designed to eliminate quickly any type of waste. The bowels detect salmonella as waste, so contractions begin, in an attempt to clear the bacteria and force it in the stool. However, this mechanism fails and only results in severe contractions and acute pain. Gastrointestinal problems and diseases like appendicitis also cause stomach pain, so this is another misleading symptom. In order to be on the safe side, make sure that you go to a doctor as soon as the pain starts.

Salmonella treatment

Salmonella is best treated by preventing dehydration, with a large amount of clear fluids to replace the lost water. Sports drinks like Gatorade and Lucozade are very good choices, as well as clear broth, because they also supply essential salts. Pedialyte, Dioralyte and other dedicated oral replacement fluids are even more effective and should be given to children.

During the first one or two days of infection, you should stick to a brat diet or just bland foods. However, you can continue with a normal diet as well if you wish. Kids should continue to eat as usual, with an increased fluid intake.

A normal person will start to recover without any additional treatment. You should go to a hospital if you don't feel better after 2-3 days or if you notice other symptoms. Antibiotics are needed if the initial symptoms become worse or if you develop a high fever, strong abdominal pain or blood in your diarrhea.

Ask for medical advice sooner if you are vulnerable for various reasons: pregnancy, young or old age, the presence of other serious diseases or if your immune system is weakened.

Antibiotics should be used only in very serious cases, because they can actually make the healing process longer. They are prescribed only in virulent infections or if the bacteria break into the blood stream. Loperamide, commercially known as Imodium, is a drug against diarrhea that also makes the infection slower to heal. It can make the symptoms less severe.

People who are infected should be careful not to pass it to others, crowded places like school and work have to be avoided. The bacteria easily travel to other persons, especially if the hands are not properly washed. The pathogen can be transmitted through shared towels, toilet handles and other common items.

Can salmonella infections be prevented?

It is very important to know that salmonella bacteria are killed by both cooling and pasteurization. However, cooking must be done properly, at the right temperature.

Use a food thermometer when cooking poultry and make sure the juices become clear after skewering. Stuffing birds can contaminate the filling, so make sure you cook it separately. Washing chicken meat is a very bad practice, since the germs can spread easily around the kitchen. Eggs should also be cooked well, discard them if the shells are cracked. Wash your hands after cooking eggs, even if you have only touched their shells.

Hamburgers can cause infection if you consume them raw, always order them well done. Raw meat in general should be completely defrosted before cooking it, in order to reach the correct temperature that kills all bacteria. Use a dedicated board to cut raw meat and don't use it for other foods, wash the board and the knife immediately in hot water with a lot of soap.

Any vegetables, fruits or salads have to be well washed and peeled before use. Keeping the food inside the refrigerator or freezer is a good practice because it prevents the fast multiplication of salmonella. Your fridge should be well organized, with separate zones for raw ingredients and cooked food, so fluids can't spread between them.

Cleaning your house well is also very important. Wash your towels and clothes often, at high temperatures, and change them frequently. All kitchen surfaces must be disinfected, as well as the entire bathroom, in particular the flush handle. If the water in your area is hard, lime scale deposits include bacteria and dirt, so make sure you remove them.

When you eat at a restaurant, read the hygiene reviews before making a choice. Travelling can be dangerous and you should be extra careful. The water supply is limited in many parts of the world, so street food can be delicious but contaminated by pathogens. In poorly developed countries drink only bottled water, don't use ice cubes, eat well-cooked foods, avoid salads and peel fruits.

If you are already infected, be careful not to spread it to others. Avoid sharing towels, don't cook for others and wash any clothes or bed sheets at the highest available temperature. Washing your hands is often enough to prevent infection. This is especially important after touching food and after bathroom visits, educate your kids to always wash their hands in such situations.

Eggs are often overlooked as a salmonella transmission method. Even grade A eggs that are carefully disinfected can still be contaminated, so cook them carefully and don't consume dishes with runny yolk.

Food with raw ingredients must be avoided in general. Many recipes can include raw eggs, these include homemade ice cream, chocolate mousse, eggnog, cookie dough, frostings, salad dressings and the traditional Italian dessert tiramisu. Salmonella can be present in fresh juices and unpasteurized milk as well.

Kitchen maintenance is critical to avoid infection, so make sure that any cooking surfaces are perfectly clean. Separate cooked and ready to eat meals from any raw ingredients, especially meat. After touching uncooked ingredients, wash any boards, knives or counters, as well as your hands.

Pets can also be a source of infection in particular the feces of reptiles that naturally contain salmonella. Reptiles must never come in contact with infants; wash your hands well after handling any pets. Turtles, iguanas and other reptiles should not be kept in the same house as babies because they can transmit bacteria.

If you have diarrhea or vomiting symptoms you should never cook food for other people. Prepared food must never stay outside for more than 2 hours after it is cooked, in hot climates this internal is even lower. Store it properly inside a refrigerator with a set temperature of 4.4°C or less.

Which foods can cause salmonella symptoms?

There are several foods that are commonly infected with salmonella but basically any ingredient can be contaminated through contact with others during transport and handling. While the risk is much higher for some items, even unusual products like chocolate have been responsible for outbreaks.

There are no obvious signs of salmonella contamination; smelling or examining products won't help. Infected food will look and smell exactly like normal one, so don't be fooled by it.

Many foods can carry salmonella, the most common are raw poultry meats (chicken, turkey, duck or others), raw or poorly cooked eggs (also found in mayonnaise, homemade mousse and tiramisu), raw minced meat that is not fully cooked and well as the raw milk also found in cream or some cheeses.

Other risky products are water contaminated with animal feces, fruit juices prepared on the spot in the machine juicers in restaurants and cafes that are not properly cleaned, fatty foods such as peanut butter that allow bacteria to survive longer, as well as carton fruit juices without pasteurization.