How dangerous is salmonella?

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

National salmonella outbreaks are scary, aren’t they?  When they occur (and it seems pretty often) we hear an almost daily barrage of new cases—some serious, a few even deadly.  What is the average Jane or Joe to do in a situation like this, other than worry?

One thing, of course, is to avoid the affected foods.   You’ll survive for the short term.  If you just can’t live without your favorite peanut combo, you can check your brand’s website or call their headquarters for information.  The FDA has recommended that companies whose peanuts are not supplied by the Peanut Corporation of American (the source of the outbreak) publicize this fact.

But, really, how dangerous are these outbreaks to the general public?


There have been around 600 reported cases and eight deaths related to the peanuts so far.  These amounts will probably double or even triple before it’s over, but they’re small peanuts (?) to the more than 40,000 salmonella cases reported nationwide every year, most not due to outbreaks.  About 20 percent of these people are hospitalized and 0.6 percent die.  The really sick ones are usually under 1 year of age or elderly, or have a low immune system from disease or chemotherapy.

The occasional stool-culture-positive patient I see each year usually is unsure where he or she got it. Maybe from eating out, maybe some leftovers, maybe from family members.  Of course, most people know pet turtles, snakes and salamanders can be carriers, as can uncooked eggs and chicken.  Since there’s no legal requirement to report every case, and a lot of milder cases never make it to the doctor or never have cultures, it’s estimated there are over 1.4 million total U.S. cases per year.


If you’re not in at high-risk group and develop salmonellosis, there’s not much to do other than keep from getting dehydrated by drinking clear liquids.

About six to 48 hours after exposure, you’ll develop abdominal cramping, diarrhea and fever.  The fever lasts 48 hours but the diarrhea may last up to a week.

If your diarrhea is profuse or you can’t get enough fluids by mouth, you may need some I.V. fluids.  Some people get very sick and need IV antibiotics and fluids in the hospital if the Salmonella bacteria get in the bloodstream.  For the common case, you don’t get better any quicker with antibiotics.

Taking antidiarrhea medicine may only prolong your illness.

As I like to say, statistics don’t really matter if it’s you or your loved one who is sick or dying, but I just wanted to put it in a little perspective.  It is a nasty bug.  You should do all you can to avoid it, but unless you’re in a high-risk group, your odds of getting over it are very good.

What do you think?  Have you ever had the bug yourself?

Doctors and business owners: Send customized issues of James Hubbard’s My Family Doctor to your customers or patients. E-mail for details.

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7 Responses to “How dangerous is salmonella?”

  1. Dr. J Says:

    Thanks for all the information. I have had severe food poisoning a few times. I never had a real diagnosis, most were probably staph related but once, it lasted for days before I could stand up straight again! Can we say cheap buffet in Reno!

    Dr. Js last blog post..Nibbles: Watching TV as a teen leads to poor diet later, diabetes drug recalled in China and eating during and after “The Biggest Loser”

  2. cathy Says:

    Great information! With the recent tainted-food outbreaks, I’ve wondered how dangerous salmonella is for the average person. I’ve never had it, and hope to keep it that way!

    cathys last blog post..Guest post time! How much sugar is too much for kids?

  3. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Dr. J, lol
    It can be pretty rough.

    Hope you don’t ever go through it

  4. Cat Says:

    Thanks for this info! I have to do a report on Salmonella and this really came in handy!

  5. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Cat, You’re welcome

    James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.s last blog post..How to Help a Loved One: depression, alcoholism, addiction …

  6. Sarah Says:

    I’m a little bit behind on reading this article…Like a couple of years behind! Ha!
    I went to the ER last night with a fever of 101 and a heart rate of 145. The doctors think I have Salmonella as well as a sinus infection. I am freaked out that I am going to be in that small percentage of people who get extremely sick. They gave me an IV for dehydration and also gave me a dose of Zofran and a dose of Toradal in my IV. I am pretty healthy, except for having asthma. My diarrhea has stopped, but I still have a fever and head congestion. The stomach pain has gone down significantly, but I still feel achey. Is that congruent with normal symptoms? Is it still okay to have fevers after the fact?
    I’ve never had Salmonella as an adult, before now, but it is definitely not fun!!

    Thanks! :)

  7. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    If you’re drinking fluids and staying hydrated that’s a good sign. The fever is not usual. Follow up with your regular doctor or an urgent care facility, or whatever the ER told you.

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