Bacterial Gastroenteritis

Written by Helen Colledge and Marijane Leonard | Published on August 16, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Overview

If you have bacterial gastroenteritis, bacteria have caused an infection in your gut. This usually results in your stomach and intestines becoming inflamed, and you’ll probably experience unpleasant symptoms such as vomiting, severe abdominal cramps and diarrhea. Although viruses cause most infections of the gastrointestinal system, bacterial infections are also quite common. Sometimes people refer to this infection as “food poisoning.”

Bacterial gastroenteritis tends to develop as the result of poor hygiene. You can get it after close contact with animals, or it can result from consuming food or water that has been contaminated with bacteria (or the toxic substances they produce).

Long-Term Outlook

As an otherwise healthy adult, you are most likely to recover from bacterial gastroenteritis in under a week. Those who are elderly or very young are more vulnerable to the effects of gastroenteritis and may occasionally experience serious complications. They should be closely monitored as they may need hospital care.

Causes

Numerous kinds of bacteria can cause gastroenteritis, including:

  • yersinia (found in pork)
  • staphylococcus (found in dairy products, meat, and eggs)
  • shigella (associated with water and found in swimming pools)
  • salmonella (found in meat, dairy products, and eggs)
  • E. coli (found in ground beef, salads)
  • campylobacter (found in meat and poultry)

Outbreaks

You might be part of a group that gets sick. Outbreaks of bacterial gastroenteritis tend to occur in association with restaurants or at social events where the same food is served to many people. Outbreaks are often what prompt recalls of produce and other food products.

Risk Factors

If your immune system is suppressed by an existing illness or treatment, you are more at risk of bacterial gastroenteritis. Your risk may also be increased if you take drugs that decrease the acidity inside your stomach.

Incorrect handling of food tends to raise the risk of bacterial gastroenteritis. If food is undercooked, stored at room temperature for too long, or insufficiently reheated, bacteria in it will survive and may even multiply more quickly. Some bacteria produce harmful substances known as toxins. And these toxins carry on after the reheating process even when the bacteria themselves do not.

Symptoms

The symptoms you experience may vary according to the type of bacteria causing your infection, but they could include:

  • loss of appetite
  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • abdominal pains and cramps
  • blood in your stools
  • fever

Call your doctor if your symptoms do not improve after five days, or two days for children.

If a child who is older than three months continues to vomit after 12 hours, call a doctor. Likewise, if a baby of less than three months experiences either diarrhea or vomiting, you should call your doctor.

Diagnosis and Tests

Your doctor will ask you questions about your illness and examine you thoroughly for signs of dehydration and abdominal pain.

To determine which type of bacteria is causing your infection, you may be required to give a stool sample for analysis.

Blood samples might also be taken to check for evidence of dehydration.

Treatment

The main aim of treatment is to keep you fully hydrated in order to avoid complications. It is important not too lose too much salt (such as sodium and potassium), as these must remain within certain ranges for your body to function properly.

For more serious cases of bacterial gastroenteritis, you may be admitted to hospital and given fluids and salts intravenously.

Treatment with antibiotics is usually reserved for the most severe cases of gastroenteritis.

Home Care

If you have a milder case of bacterial gastroenteritis, you may be able to treat your illness at home. You may find the following tips helpful:

  • Drink fluids regularly throughout the day, especially after an episode of diarrhea.
  • If possible, eat little and often, and include some salty foods.
  • Consume foods or drinks containing potassium, such as fruit juice and bananas.
  • Do not take any medication without consulting your doctor.
  • If you are unable to keep any fluids down, you may need hospital treatment.

Prevention

If you already have gastroenteritis, you should take precautions not to spread the bacteria to others.

  • Wash your hands after using the toilet and before handling food.
  • Avoid preparing food for other people.
  • Keep away from others during your illness.
  • Wait 48 hours after your symptoms stop before returning to work.

The following measures can help prevent bacterial gastroenteritis infections:

  • Avoid consuming unpasteurized milk, raw meat, or raw shellfish.
  • Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw and cooked meats.
  • Thoroughly wash salads and vegetables.
  • When storing foods for more than a couple of hours, make sure temperatures are either very hot or very cold.
  • Make sure kitchens are kept scrupulously clean.
  • Wash your hands after using the toilet, before handling different foods, after touching animals, and before eating.
  • Drink bottled water when traveling abroad and take any recommended vaccines.
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