Can Composting Really Make You Sick? The Facts Explained

Composting is a great way to use your organic wastes like kitchen scraps and grass clippings without having them rot away in a landfill. You can easily compost with or without a bin and use this to improve your garden and soil. However, there are some dangers to composting. 

Composting can make you sick because of bacterial or fungal infections but the incidence is rare. Older adults and people with lung conditions are more susceptible to these infections like Legionnaires Disease, Salmonella, Aspergillosis, Farmer’s Lung, Paronychia, Tetanus, and Histoplasmosis. 

Composting can be a safe and productive exercise despite the potential dangers, providing that you follow a few safety protocols. In this article, I’ll explore the possible infections caused by composting, if it’s safe to compost, and what you can do to ensure that your compost doesn’t make you sick, so read on!

Potential Infections Caused by Composting

While infections caused by composting are rare, they aren’t impossible. Here I’ll examine the different infections that may be caused due to working with compost.

Legionnaires Disease

Legionnaires Disease is a type of pneumonia caused by Legionella longbeachae commonly found in compost and potting soil. When compost dust is inhaled, the bacteria infect the person, allowing the bacteria to reach the lungs. 

Older people and people with compromised immune systems are the most vulnerable to infection by the L. Longbeachae. The disease can be very serious and even life-threatening. 

The symptoms of Legionnaire’s disease include:

  • Coughing
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion. 

These symptoms develop within a few days or up to two weeks after exposure. If you present these symptoms, consult your doctor immediately. Most cases can be treated with antibiotics. 


Salmonella is one of the rarer diseases you can get from composting, as composting is often used to eliminate the E. Coli bacteria. The heat generated by the composting process kills off most pathogens, resulting in a sterile final compost that’s free of pathogens and weeds

However, partially decomposed compost and even completed compost contaminated with animal or insect waste can be a breeding ground for E. Coli bacteria. This contamination can cause Salmonella in people handling the contaminated or incomplete compost. 

Symptoms of Salmonella contamination include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Stomach cramps.

Salmonella can pass over by self-medication depending on the severity of the infection, but medical attention should be sought if the symptoms are severe or prolonged. 


Compost is a major source of Aspergillosis spores, making handling compost a public health risk when people are exposed to large quantities of the spores regularly. 

Aspergillosis is a lung infection commonly understood as fungal asthma. The condition is caused by inhaling the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus spores found in compost and soils with compost. 

People with weak immunity or lung damage are susceptible to this infection, primarily if they work with a lot of compost.

The symptoms include the following:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Coughing up blood.

This disease is typically cured by medical prescriptions of antifungal medication. 

Farmer’s Lung

Farmer’s lung is a lung infection caused by the inhalation of bacteria or fungus found in moldy crops, hay, and mushroom compost. The most common sign of fungal growth that can cause Farmer’s lung is white power on top of your compost. 

While this fungus is good for breaking down the tougher plant matter like lignin and cellulose, inhaling the spores can cause Farmer’s lung. 

Symptoms of Farmer’s Lung include:

  • Persistent cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Night sweats. 

The infection is treatable with antibiotics but will require medical attention. 


Paronychia is a painful infection that occurs around the edge of fingernails, caused by bacteria entering your body through cuts or abrasions around your nails. Handling compost with your bare hands can expose you to the bacteria that cause Paronychia.

Symptoms of Paronychia include:

  • Painful red swelling around the fingernails
  • Pus build-up under the skin
  • Painful red skin that is warm to the touch. 

Minor cases of the infection can be treated at home by soaking the infected fingers in warm water every day for a few days. Major cases will need to be treated with antibiotics. 


Tetanus is commonly believed to be a disease you’re exposed to if you get cut by rusted metal, more often, a rusted nail. However, Tetanus is caused by a bacteria called Clostridium tetani which thrives in soil and compost

Symptoms of a tetanus infection include: 

  • Jaw cramping
  • Muscle spasms
  • Headache
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Jerky movements and seizures. 

You can prevent this disease of the nervous system by getting regular vaccines and ensuring that you’re protected whenever you handle compost. 


Histoplasmosis is another fungal disease, and it’s caused by the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum. It’s present in chicken manure, often added to compost for its high nitrogen content. 

The fungus won’t survive the hot composting process, so compost that’s completed all three composting phases will be sterile and free from the fungus that can cause Histoplasmosis. 

However, partially decomposed compost might’ve spores causing this lung infection with symptoms like:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Body pain
  • Headaches
  • Chest pain. 

The disease may go away on its own, but severe cases will need antifungal treatment. 

Is It Safe To Compost?

It might feel like composting is too risky to undertake with all the possible risks. However, the important thing to remember is that most infections are rare, and you may avoid them with proper precautions. 

It’s safe to compost at home if you practice hot composting methods that kill pathogens. You should wear protective gear when working with compost to ensure that there are no entry points for bacteria or fungi. Avoiding meat and pet feces in your pile will also reduce your exposure to pathogens. 

Composting at home with plant-based greens and browns is perfectly safe. The heat generated from composting, especially in the thermophilic stage, will kill off most pathogens present in your kitchen scraps and yard clippings. 

If you suspect that your completed compost is contaminated, you can sterilize it again by exposing it to the hot sun or baking it in a hot oven and handling the pile carefully. 

Tips To Ensure That You’re Composting Safely

Here are a few ways that you can keep yourself safe when composting. 

Keep Your Compost Healthy

Having healthy compost that doesn’t attract pests and fruit flies or scavengers like rodents and bears will help ensure that your compost is free of any cross-contamination. Minimizing cross-contamination will keep you from E. Coli bacteria and Salmonella. 

If your compost is large enough, has a healthy mix of browns to greens in the correct ratio, and is layered correctly, the aerobic bacteria will be able to work quickly to heat the pile. Most pathogens will die off when your pile reaches the thermophilic stage. The heat will sterilize your compost, making it safe to handle. 

Keeping your compost bin moist will also prevent dust from floating when you turn your compost, as the compost won’t be dusty or powdery. Healthy compost has a 40-60% moisture percentage, which prevents particles from flying about, making it less likely to infect you. 

Don’t Use Partially Decomposed Compost

Partially decomposed compost feels warm, as the bacteria are still processing the organic matter. The percentage of pathogens is still high in partially decomposed compost, as the pile wouldn’t have had the opportunity to heat up enough to kill them off.

Handling partially decomposed compost is harmful to you and your plants. Most illnesses associated with compost are caused by handling partially decomposed compost. 

Always Wash Your Hands Thoroughly After Handling Compost

Infections like Salmonella happen when people forget to wash their hands thoroughly after working with compost. 

If you rush through your handwashing, then touch your face or mouth after working with compost, you’ll ingest bacteria. These bacteria can infect your gut, causing you to fall very ill. 

Always wash your hands thoroughly after working with compost, even if you’re wearing gloves

Use Gloves and a Mask When Working With Compost in Progress

When compost is in its first two stages — the mesophilic stage, followed by the thermophilic stage where temperatures go up — it needs the most attention. 

During the first two compost phases, you need to turn and aerate your compost regularly. You also need to water your compost to keep your compost from overheating and drying up. 

However, it’s very easy to inhale compost dust while turning it or get the hummus into cuts in your cuticles while you’re turning or watering your compost. Keep yourself safe from infection by making sure you’re wearing shoes and gloves, and full sleeves. This covering should protect you from Paronychia. 

You may prevent potential infections by wearing a mask, and turning your compost carefully, so you don’t accidentally inhale any spores. 

Open Compost Bags Carefully

If you’re opening shop-bought compost bags, open them carefully. No matter how well they’ve been stored, it’s very likely that the compost will have fungal spores that can infect your lungs. 

Wear a mask, and open the bag by holding it away from your face so that you don’t inhale any spores that might be in the compost. 

Be especially careful when opening older bags of compost, as the spores will have had more time to fill the bag.

Final Thoughts

While it’s rare, composting can make you sick if you inhale fungal spores or bacteria. Infections like Legionnaires Disease, Aspergillosis, Farmer’s Lung, and Histoplasmosis are lung infections with pneumonia-like symptoms. Paronychia is a painful infection caused by bacteria infecting cuts around your nails or in your cuticles. 

The possibility of these infections doesn’t make composting unsafe. You can compost safely by following hot composting methods, keeping your pile healthy, practicing proper hygiene, and wearing a mask to protect yourself from compost dust and fungal spores.

Alexander Picot

Alexander Picot is the principal creator of, a website dedicated to gardening tips. Inspired by his mother’s love of gardening, Alex has a passion for taking care of plants and turning backyards into feel-good places and loves to share his experience with the rest of the world.

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