Salmon has many health benefits, making it a popular choice among seafood eaters.
Dishes made with raw fish are traditional in many cultures. Popular examples are sashimi, a Japanese dish with thinly sliced raw fish, and gravlax, a Nordic appetizer of raw salmon cured in salt, sugar, and dill.
If you have an adventurous palate, you might wonder if eating salmon raw is safe.
This article reviews the health concerns of eating raw salmon and describes how to enjoy it safely.
Raw salmon may pose a health risk
Raw salmon may harbor bacteria, parasites, and other pathogens. Some occur naturally in the fish’s environment, while others can result from improper handling.
Cooking salmon to an internal temperature of 145°F (63°C) kills bacteria and parasites, but you risk contracting an infection if you eat the fish raw.
Parasites in raw salmon
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lists salmon as a known source of parasites, which live on or in other organisms —including humans.
Helminths are worm-like parasites similar to tapeworms or roundworms. They’re common in finfish like salmon.
Helminths or the Japanese broad tapeworm Diphyllobothrium nihonkaiense can live in your small intestine, growing to more than 39 feet (12 meters) long.
These and other types of tapeworms have been found in wild salmon from Alaska and Japan — and in the digestive tracts of people who have eaten raw salmon from those areas.
Symptoms of a helminth infection include weight loss, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and in some cases anemia. That said, many people experience no symptoms.
Bacterial and viral infections from raw salmon
Like all types of seafood, salmon can be exposed to bacterial or viral contamination, which can cause mild to serious illness when you eat uncooked fish.
Some types of bacteria or viruses that may be present in raw salmon include:
- Clostridium botulinum
- Staphylococcus aureus
- Listeria monocytogenes
- Escherichia coli
- Hepatitis A
Most infections from eating seafood result from improper handling, storage, or harvesting of seafood from water contaminated by human waste.
Raw salmon may also contain environmental contaminants. Both farmed and wild salmon may harbor trace amounts of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals.
POPs are toxic chemicals including pesticides, industrial manufacturing chemicals, and flame retardants, which accumulate in the food chain because they’re stored in the fatty tissue of animals and fish.
Human exposure to POPs increases the risk of cancer, birth defects, and endocrine, immune, and reproductive disorders.
Researchers sampled 10 species of fish sourced at a market in Spain and found that salmon contained the highest levels of a specific type of flame retardant. However, the levels detected were still within safe limits.
Cooking salmon reduces the levels of many POPs. One study found that cooked salmon had an average of 26% lower levels of POPs than raw salmon.
Summary: Raw salmon may contain parasites, bacteria, or other pathogens that can cause infections. Salmon is also a source of environmental contaminants.
How to reduce your risk of foodborne illness
If you choose to eat raw salmon, make sure it has been previously blast-frozen to -31°F (-35°C), which kills any parasites in the salmon.
Still, blast-freezing does not kill all pathogens. Another thing to keep in mind is that most home freezers don’t get this cold.
When buying raw salmon or ordering dishes that contain it, you should also look it over carefully.
Suggested read: What is cross-contamination? And how to avoid it
Properly frozen and thawed salmon looks firm and moist with no bruising, discoloration, or off-odor.
If you’re preparing raw salmon in your own kitchen, make sure your surfaces, knives, and serving utensils are clean and keep your salmon refrigerated until just before serving to prevent bacterial contamination.
If you’re eating raw salmon or any other type of fish and your mouth or throat feels tingly, it may be caused by a live parasite moving in your mouth. Spit it out or cough it up.
Summary: Raw salmon should be blast-frozen to kill parasites and prevent the growth of pathogens. Always check raw salmon before eating it to ensure it looks and smells fresh.
Who should not eat raw fish
Some people are at a higher risk of contracting a serious foodborne infection and should never eat raw salmon or other raw seafood. These people include:
- pregnant women
- older adults
- anyone with a weakened immune system, such as those with cancer, liver disease, HIV/AIDS, organ transplants, or diabetes
Foodborne illness can result in severe symptoms, hospitalization, or even death in people with a compromised immune system.
Summary: If you have an illness or health condition that compromises your immune system, avoid raw salmon, as it presents a risk of a severe and even life-threatening foodborne infection.
Dishes that contain raw salmon can be a tasty treat and a good way to eat more seafood.
Yet, it’s important to be aware that raw salmon may contain parasites, bacteria, and other toxins that can be harmful even in small doses.
Only eat raw salmon that’s been stored and prepared properly. Don’t risk eating raw salmon if you have a compromised immune system.