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I've heard Salmonella mentioned in the news lately. What is Salmonella?

Salmonella is a family of bacteria that live in the intestines of animals, reptiles and birds. Several kinds of Salmonella can cause illness in people and animals, mainly diarrhea.

How do people get Salmonella?

Usually people get Salmonella by eating food that is contaminated with it, or by handling contaminated food if they don't wash their hands afterward. They can also get exposed to Salmonella by touching reptiles or birds or other animals that carry it. People who have Salmonella can spread it to other people if they don't wash their hands after using the toilet, or if they prepare food without first washing their hands.

What kinds of foods might have Salmonella in them?

The most common kinds of foods that carry Salmonella are poultry, meats and eggs. However, even fruits and vegetables can become contaminated if they get exposed to contaminated water during irrigation or washing, or in processed foods during the manufacturing process. Unpasteurized milk can also be contaminated. Locally grown and produced foods are generally less likely to be contaminated than industrially-produced foods.

How can someone tell if food is contaminated with Salmonella?

Usually you cannot tell, because the food does not look or smell any different.

I've heard some recent reports about peanut products being contaminated. What kind of peanut products should I worry about?

So far, no Salmonella has been found in any brand of peanut butter that is sold in stores. It has been found mostly in processed foods containing peanut, like cookies and crackers, baked goods, candy, snack bars, and ice cream. It has also been found in some institutional settings like nursing homes that purchased peanut butter in bulk. It has even been found in pet foods like doggie treats that have peanut as an ingredient.

How did the Salmonella get into the peanut-containing foods?

That still isn't known. However, all of the contaminated peanut products have been traced to one large peanut processing plant in Georgia, run by the Peanut Corporation of America, that makes peanut butter and peanut paste in bulk to be sold to food manufacturers, restaurants and large institutions all around the country. They sell only very large tubs or bulk containers of peanut butter, not the kind that are sold in grocery stores. The brand is called, "King Nut".

How can I find out if peanut products I have purchased might contain Salmonella?

The Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, has an excellent website that lists all of the products that have been identified as being contaminated, which is updated every day. It can be searched by product type, brand, and UPC code. You can find a link on their main page at So far, over 350 products have been reported to be possibly contaminated. Many manufacturers whose products are safe and are proven not to be contaminated are stating this on their websites. If you're not sure if a product is safe, it is best to throw it away so that no one can eat it or touch it.

What happens if you get Salmonella?

Many people and animals who get Salmonella don't get sick, but it can cause fever and diarrhea; often, but not always, the diarrhea will have blood in it. People usually become sick between 1 and 4 days after being exposed. The illness usually lasts for about a week, but it can take longer to recover fully.

Can Salmonella be dangerous?

In young infants and the elderly, and in people who have immune system problems or sickle cell disease, it can be serious and can sometimes spread to other parts of the body. Some medications, like those that reduce stomach acid or suppress the immune system, can increase the risk of illness. Rarely, it can be fatal. A very small number of people have died in this outbreak, but the vast majority of people have recovered.

How is Salmonella treated?

Most people get better without needing medication. It is important to drink a lot of liquids to replace fluids lost because of diarrhea. Some people who are very ill may need antibiotics to cure the infection, but most people don't. Sometimes antibiotics can actually make the illness last longer by killing off healthy bacteria that compete with the Salmonella in the intestines.

How can I keep from getting Salmonella?

Always practice safe food handling. Wash hands before and after food preparation. Make sure all meat and poultry and eggs are cooked, and that fruits and vegetables are washed. It's especially important to cook ground meats, like hamburger, until they are well done, with no pink in the middle. Meat, poultry and eggs should be kept in the bottom of your refrigerator so that they don't leak onto foods underneath them that don't get cooked, like vegetables and fruits. More than half of reptiles like turtles and iguanas carry Salmonella, and should not be kept in the house if someone in the family has one of the conditions that increases the risk of complications from Salmonella.

What should I do if I think someone in my family might be sick with Salmonella?

See your doctor or health care provider. They can diagnose Salmonella from a stool sample; the tests take 2 or 3 days to perform. Your doctor is the best person to decide what kind of treatment you might need. It's very important not to take antibiotics prescribed for something else; they may not help, and could make the situation worse. Over the counter diarrhea medications like Imodium shouldn't be used for Salmonella, because they can also make it worse.

Where can I learn more about Salmonella?

Check out the Centers for Disease Control main website at; they have a link from their home page to information for the public about Salmonella.

Source: Text provided to TCHD by Jeffery Snedeker, M.D., Member, Tompkins County Board of Health (Posted Jan. 26, 2009)