Salmonella infections affect children more frequently and more severely than adults. Although most salmonella infections arise from contaminated or undercooked food (chicken, eggs, beef, and dairy typically), reptiles, pet foods and now amphibians are an important source of infection to keep in mind for our children.
Today, a new study published in Pediatrics links Salmonella infections to pet frogs here in the US. This is the first study to detail amphibians as an important source of Salmonella infections. 8 tips for preventing Salmonella are at the end of this post.
New research tracked an outbreak of a particular strain of Salmonella between 2008 and 2011. In 44 states, researchers identified 376 cases of Salmonella in children and adults with an average age of 5 years. Over 2/3 (69%) of the cases were in children under age 10. The source of these salmonella bacteria was tracked to a breeding facility that shipped an aquatic frog, the African dwarf frog, to pet stores and people around the country. Although the African dwarf frogs are not always handled, many people were presumably infected from touching the frog’s contaminated water bowl or may have been infected when aquariums and equipment were cleaned in sinks also used for food preparation.
The study uncovered an important truth:
Few patients and families were aware that Salmonella could be spread from reptiles and amphibians.
Even when we parents are aware, some children still get infected. It’s essential that children who handle reptiles and amphibians always wash their hands after playing with the pets or help clean or care for their aquariums. This data hits close to home as my son had Salmonella gastroenteritis when he was just 4 months of age after a trip to Central America.
Salmonella infections cause diarrhea (sometimes with blood), abdominal cramping, and sometimes fever. Most people recover without any treatment in 4-7 days however children under age 5 are at much higher risk for more serious infections. Many children are hospitalized with Salmonella (29% of children in the study). Many of these infections are preventable with good food handling and making smart decisions about pets, particularly those around young children.
Children are likely at higher risk for acquiring Salmonella infection because of their decreased likelihood to practice good hand-washing, as well as increased risk of hand-to face contact, and contact with the environment.
Preventing Salmonella Infections in Children
- Salmonella infections are fairly common. It’s estimated that over a million people around the US are infected annually. More cases are in children under age 5 years than any other group. Although most infections are caused by contaminated food, 70,000 of the estimated 1+ million infections in children and adults are linked back to reptiles and amphibians. Many infections are preventable.
- Salmonella outbreaks have been linked to poultry, beef, eggs, produce, hedgehogs, and reptiles in the last few years. A CDC list remains updated with recent outbreaks. Proper cooking kills salmonella and can prevent infections. Be careful to avoid undercooked chicken, beef, and eggs. If you’re served undercooked eggs or meat in a restaurant, this is one good reason to have the awkward moment where you ask to have your food sent back for more time on the griddle.
- Infants and children under age 5 years are more susceptible to Salmonella infections. So are the elderly, those with immune problems, or those on medications that suppress the immune system. Children 3 months and younger are at highest risk for infections that could potentially spread to other parts of their body (brain, blood, joints, or in their urine).
- Treatment is adequate fluids and time. In general, most children and adults don’t require antibiotics for Salmonella infections as antibiotics don’t change the course of illness or change side effects. However, infants 3 months and under and more serious salmonella infections that spread outside the gastrointestinal track will often require treatment. If you’re concerned your infant or child becomes ill from undercooked food or contact with reptiles/amphibians, check with their doctor immediately.
- Reptiles & amphibians, chicken and other animals (Hedgehogs!) remain a relevant source of Salmonella infections to know about. Reptiles and animals can carry salmonella in their intestines and so it is in their stool. Chicks, chickens and reptiles will then have contamination on the surface of their bodies so even if a child doesn’t handle the feces, they can come in contact with Salmonella. The study on African dwarf frogs provides a good reminder about the pets in our home–only 27% of those infected reported directly touching the frogs!
- Children should wait until they are over 5 years of age before having reptiles such as frogs and turtles, snakes or other reptiles, says the CDC. The CDC also recommends that no reptiles be caged in the home of an infant. Lessons from the study include cleaning the aquariums outside of the home (not in kitchen or bathroom sink) and ensuring that children and adults always wash hands after handling pets or their equipment.
- No reptile or amphibians at preschool. It’s no recommended that daycare and preschools with young children avoid reptiles or amphibians as pets due to risk of Salmonella infections. Be careful if you’re raising chickens, too. Those downy feathers can be contaminated with Salmonella. Wash hands after every interaction with chicks, chickens, or the coop.
- Pet food and pet treats have been contaminated with Salmonella repeatedly. A study published in 2010 detailed a 3-year, 21-state outbreak linked to dry dog and cat food. About 1/2 of the children infected were under 2 years of age. Studies found children were more likely to be infected if dogs/cats ate in the kitchen (possible cross-contamination). Don’t let young children play in or around pet food bowls. Children shouldn’t feed the dog or cat until they are over age 5…
Thanks for this.
My 18-month-old daughter contracted a relatively rare strain of Salmonella and ended up with osteomyelitis, requiring two surgeries and six weeks of IV antibiotics. (She’s fine now, thanks to the excellent care she got at UCSF medical center.)
Many hours on the telephone with the county Health Department revealed little, but the only going hypothesis is that she may have been exposed during a birthday party for my older child that featured a herpetologist who brought a variety of snakes, lizards, and turtles into our home.
The irony is that I had always been exceptionally careful about food-borne illness, but I didn’t think about the risks of animal exposure beyond making sure everyone washed their hands after handling them.
(The herpetologist was very cool, BTW!)