Salmonella Sickness: When to See a Doctor

This post was written by Frederick Randolph, MD, Vice Chair of Clinical Operations in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Jefferson.

Over the last few weeks, there has been a reported salmonella outbreak affecting much of the eastern part of the United States with at least six documented cases occurring in Pennsylvania.   This outbreak was ultimately traced back to a chicken egg farm in North Carolina.  While salmonella is a condition that can see people improving on their own without treatment, some cases can be more severe.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that there are 1.2 million illnesses related to salmonella infection in the United States every year.  Of these 1.2 million illnesses, 1 million are related to a food source. A majority of patients will have abdominal cramping, fever and diarrhea with symptoms starting 12 hours to 3 days after infection with salmonella. Symptoms tend to last 4-7 days and usually resolve without treatment.

In some patients the diarrhea associated with salmonella infection can be severe enough to require medical care.  According to CDC estimates, this results in about 23,000 hospitalizations and approximately 450 deaths per year in the US.  Those more likely to need medical attention are children less than 5, the elderly and those with a compromised immune system. Other signs you should see a medical professional include an inability to keep fluids down, abdominal pain that gets worse, diarrhea that has any tarry stools or if there is more blood or mucus than before, fever or signs of dehydration such as extreme thirst, confusion, inability to sweat, fainting or dizziness or weight loss.

Prevention of salmonella infection involves a few steps:

  • If the infection is related to a known contamination in the food source such as the recent egg outbreak, ensure that you have disposed of any affected food.  Information regarding what specific products are affected can usually be found on the CDC website.
  • Make sure that poultry, ground beef and eggs are cooked thoroughly.  Do not eat or drink foods containing raw eggs or unpasteurized milk.
  • Wash and/or peel raw fruit or vegetables.
  • Wash hands, kitchen surfaces, utensils and cooking materials with soap and water immediately after they have been in contact with raw meat, poultry or eggs.
  • Lastly, reptiles can frequently carry salmonella.  Avoid contact with reptiles and if you do handle a reptile, wash your hands immediately afterwards with soap and water.  Additionally, do not allow young children to handle reptiles.

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