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Reptiles carry salmonella, so owner beware

You finally gave in, and your child is now the proud owner of a pet reptile. What the pet store may not have told you is that 60 to 90 percent of reptiles, including snakes, iguanas, and turtles, carry salmonella (the same bacterium found in uncooked chicken)

Cases of reptile-transmitted salmonella infection in humans are on the rise, and while this bacterium won't harm the animal, in humans it can cause gastrointestinal distress, and in severe cases, even death.Reptiles pass salmonella in their feces. Their skin is then exposed to it through their living environment. So anyone who touches a reptile or anything that it has touched could come in contact with salmonella and also pass it on. The bacterium can enter through the eyes or a wound, but most infection results from oral ingestion.

"Young children are especially susceptible to contracting salmonella because they're always putting their fingers in their mouths," explains Eric Mintz, M.D., chief of diarrheal diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children under 1 year old are likely to be hit harder by the infection because their immune systems are less mature and their stomachs have less acidity, which acts as a barrier to bacteria.

Symptoms of infection include diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever and vomiting. If your child appears dehydrated, has blood in her stool or severe diarrhea for more than a day, seek prompt medical attention.

If you or your child must have a close encounter with a reptile or its cage, wash hands with soap and warm water immediately afterward.