Enteritis

Written by Ann Pietrangelo
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP

What is Enteritis?

Enteritis is the inflammation of your small intestine. In some cases, the inflammation includes the stomach and large intestine.

Ingesting food and water contaminated with bacteria is a leading cause of enteritis. Contributing factors are inadequate hygiene and improper handling of food. You are more likely to contract enteritis when traveling to places with poor sanitation and substandard hygienic practices.

Symptoms of enteritis include diarrhea and abdominal pain. Enteritis usually clears up without treatment in a few days. However if you have symptoms of enteritis for more than three or four days, seek medical attention. You should also seek help if you are showing signs of dehydration, which can happen if you have the inflammation for an extended period.

Causes of Enteritis

The most common cause of enteritis is contaminated food or water. Bacteria and viruses infect the small intestine, causing inflammation.

Enteritis can also be the result of:

  • some medications, including ibuprofen and naproxen sodium
  • illegal drugs, such as cocaine
  • radiation therapy
  • autoimmune diseases, such as Crohn’s disease (a form of inflammatory bowel disease)

Your risk of developing enteritis increases when you:

  • travel to countries with poor sanitation
  • drink contaminated water
  • are exposed to others who have intestinal problems

Types of Enteritis

Food Poisoning

The most common type of enteritis is caused by food poisoning. You get it after ingesting food or water that is contaminated with bacteria. The bacteria can enter the food supply in a number of ways, including:

  • improper food handling
  • poor hygiene
  • during poultry and meat processing

You can also get enteritis when you come into close contact with other people or animals that are infected. This is less common.

The foods most often associated with food poisoning are:

  • raw poultry and meat
  • unpasteurized milk
  • fresh produce

Some common bacteria that cause enteritis include:

  • Salmonella
  • Escherichia coli (E. coli)
  • Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus)
  • Campylobacter jejuni (C. jejuni)
  • Shigella
  • Yersinia enterocolitica (Y. enterocolitica)

Radiation Enteritis

This type of enteritis can occur following radiation therapy. While killing cancer cells, radiation can also kill rapidly dividing normal cells. This affects the ability of the intestinal cells to repair themselves.

Symptoms of Enteritis

Symptoms of enteritis can start anywhere from a few hours to a few days after infection. Symptoms may include:

  • diarrhea
  • nausea and vomiting
  • loss of appetite
  • abdominal cramps and pain
  • pain, bleeding, or mucus-like discharge from the rectum

Complications of Enteritis

If symptoms are severe or become chronic, you are at increased risk of dehydration. Infants and young children are especially vulnerable to dehydration. This is a serious health risk.

When To Seek Medical Care

Seek medical attention if:

  • symptoms persist longer than three or four days
  • you have a fever over 101 degrees F
  • you notice blood in your stools

You should also seek help if you have symptoms of dehydration, which include:

  • dry mouth
  • sunken eyes
  • lack of tears
  • low volume of urine
  • urine that is very dark in color
  • severe fatigue
  • sunken fontanelles (soft spot on the top of the head) on an infant

Dehydration is a serious medical condition requiring urgent medical attention.

If you have enteritis, your doctor will perform a physical examination. Blood tests or stool cultures may be ordered to identify the cause of your illness.

How Enteritis is Treated

Mild cases of enteritis generally clear up within a few days. They don’t require medical treatment. People with diarrhea must replenish their fluids.

If you can’t get enough fluids, your doctor may recommend rehydration with electrolyte solutions. These solutions are made up of primarily water and the essential electrolytes: sodium (salt) and potassium. In acute cases, intravenous fluids, medications, or hospitalization may be necessary.

In patients with chronic radiation enteritis, changes to radiation therapy may be required. You may even need to stop radiation entirely. In some cases, it may be necessary to have surgery performed to cut out (resect) the part of the bowel that has been damaged.

Long-Term Outlook for Enteritis

For most people, symptoms dissipate within a few days. Recovery can take two to three weeks for acute cases.

In patients with radiation enteritis, a full recovery may take as long as six to 18 months after radiation is completed.

How to Prevent Enteritis

Practicing good personal hygiene and safe food handling can help lower your chances of developing enteritis.

Hygiene

  • Always wash your hands with soap and water when available.
  • Always wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom.
  • Wash your hands before and after preparing food or drinks.
  • Wash your hands before every meal.
  • When traveling or away from running water, carry hand wipes (sixty percent alcohol-based products are best).
  • Don’t drink from outdoor wells or other water sources without first boiling the water.

Food Preparation

  • Avoid cross-contamination. Use clean utensils for each chore.
  • Keep foods separate. (For example, keep raw poultry away from lettuce.)
  • Wash kitchen surfaces often.

Cooking

  • Cook all foods to the correct temperature. Use a food thermometer.
  • Beef, pork, and lamb should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees F.
  • Ground meats should be cooked to a minimum of 160 degrees F.
  • Poultry should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.

Storing

  • Refrigerate leftovers promptly. Your refrigerator should be set to 40 degrees F or lower. Your freezer should be set to 0 degrees F or lower.
  • Be mindful of expiration dates on fresh food.
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