What Causes Typhoid Fever?

Reviewed on 3/3/2021

What is typhoid fever?

Typhoid fever is typically caused by a bacteria called Salmonella typhi, which only infects and sickens humans.
Typhoid fever is typically caused by a bacteria called Salmonella typhi, which only infects and sickens humans.

Typhoid fever, or paratyphoid fever, is a bacterial illness that causes a prolonged high fever, diarrhea, and body rash. It's typically caused by a bacteria called Salmonella typhi, which only infects and sickens humans. A related strain, Salmonella paratyphi, can infect domestic animals and humans, causing a similar disease known as paratyphoid fever. 

You catch typhoid fever when you consume food or water that's been contaminated with Salmonella. The disease is rare in developed countries but is a significant public health issue in developing countries. Communities with poor water and sanitation regulation are most at risk for outbreaks of typhoid fever. 

Symptoms of typhoid fever

Typhoid fever causes a sustained fever, or a temperature that doesn't come and go. Once infected, your fever could climb as high as 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

Early symptoms often include fever, stomach pain, and fatigue

You may also experience:

Causes of typhoid fever

Salmonella typhi bacteria are spread by eating food and drinking water that's been contaminated. The bacteria are found in the stool of an infected person or by someone who is a carrier. Carriers have recovered from typhoid fever, but still carry the bacteria and can infect others.

Typhoid fever is often a result of poor hygiene practices. The bacteria may end up in someone's hands or another part of the body. It's also possible to contract typhoid if the water used to wash food or prepare drinks is contaminated with Salmonella-laced sewage. 

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When to see a doctor for typhoid fever

Typhoid fever can be dangerous and life-threatening. Untreated typhoid fever can cause complications like bradycardia, hepatosplenomegaly, or pneumonia. It is important to call your doctor as soon as you notice symptoms, especially if you know you have been exposed. If you are still traveling when you begin to notice symptoms, call the U.S. consulate for help.

Beyond the threat to your health, it is important to diagnose and treat your typhoid fever so you don’t spread the disease. Even after your symptoms subside, you may still be a carrier for Salmonella typhi. Get a series of stool cultures until you know you are no longer carrying the bacteria.

Diagnosing typhoid fever

Physical tests for typhoid fever can be unreliable. Your doctor will often use your symptoms, a physical examination, and your travel history to make a diagnosis. 

They may still run a stool sample to look for the presence of Salmonella typhi bacteria. Or a blood test can indicate tpyhoid fever with elevated white blood cell counts.

Preventing typhoid fever

There's a vaccine that can help prevent typhoid fever. It's recommended if you're traveling outside the U.S. to a country where typhoid fever is common. When traveling practice these safety precautions: 

  • Drink bottled or boiled water. 
  • Eat food that's fully cooked. 
  • Wash your hands before eating and drinking. 
  • Don't eat raw vegetables or fruits that can’t be peeled. 

Some travelers carry electrolyte packets to prevent dehydration from foodborne illnesses like typhoid. 

Treatments for typhoid fever

If there's a chance you've been exposed to typhoid fever, see a healthcare provider immediately. Sometimes, the disease will go away on its own, but it can last for weeks or months without treatment: 

Your treatment plan will involve a course of antibiotics. The medication and length of time you take them depend on your age, symptoms, and general health. 

Once you start taking the medication, it's important to: 

  • Finish the full course of treatment.
  • Wash your hands after using the bathroom.
  • Avoid preparing food for other people.
  • Have a series of stool cultures to ensure the bacteria is no longer in your body. 

Symptoms of typhoid fever usually subside after treatment. Follow up with your doctor to check if you are still a carrier. Also contact your doctor if you struggle with persistent fever and weakness, as you could have complications from typhoid fever.

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References
Cedars-Sinai: "Typhoid Fever."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): "Typhoid Fever and Paratyphoid Fever: Prevention Tips for Travelers.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): "Typhoid Fever and Paratyphoid Fever: Symptoms and Treatment."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): "Typhoid Fever and Paratyphoid Fever: Questions and Answers."

World Health Organization (WHO): "Typhoid Fever."

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