Bacterial gastroenteritis occurs when bacteria cause an infection of the stomach or intestines. People often refer to bacterial gastroenteritis as food poisoning.
Bacterial gastroenteritis commonly results from the consumption of food or water that has become contaminated with bacteria or their toxins. It can cause a range of symptoms, including diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea, and vomiting.
It is essential for people with bacterial gastroenteritis to rest and drink plenty of fluids.
In this article, we look at the causes, symptoms, and diagnosis of bacterial gastroenteritis. We also cover treatment, prevention, and complications.
Many types of bacteria can cause bacterial gastroenteritis, including:
- Escherichia coli, which can occur in undercooked beef and unwashed fruits and vegetables.
- Shigella, which can be present in raw food and contaminated water, including swimming pools.
- Staphylococcus and Salmonella, which may be in raw or undercooked meats, eggs, and dairy products.
- Yersinia enterocolitica, which raw or undercooked pork can contain.
- Campylobacter, which might occur in milk and raw or undercooked poultry.
A person can get bacterial gastroenteritis after eating contaminated food or drinking or swallowing contaminated water. Food can become contaminated without proper storage, handling, and cooking.
Outbreaks of bacterial gastroenteritis can occur if many people consume the same contaminated food, possibly from a restaurant, supermarket, or grocery store.
Bacterial gastroenteritis spreads quickly from person to person. People can get the bacteria on their hands by handling contaminated food or water. Harmful bacteria are also present in the stools of people with bacterial gastroenteritis.
People who get these bacteria on their hands can spread them when they touch surfaces, objects, or other people. Anyone with these bacteria on their hands risks becoming ill if they transfer them to their mouth, eyes, or other openings on the body.
As a result, it is essential that people wash their hands thoroughly after handling food or using the bathroom, especially if they have bacterial gastroenteritis or any other infection.
The symptoms of bacterial gastroenteritis can vary between people and may depend on the bacteria causing the illness. In some cases, symptoms may not appear for up to 4 days after a person becomes infected.
Symptoms can include:
- vomiting and nausea
- abdominal pain or cramping
- loss of appetite
- fever or chills
- bloody stools
Adults with bacterial gastroenteritis should see a doctor if their symptoms do not clear up within 5 days.
People should take children to see a doctor if their symptoms do not clear up within 2 days.
A doctor will ask the individual about their symptoms. If the doctor suspects bacterial gastroenteritis, they may request a stool sample to identify the type of bacteria causing the infection.
Bacterial gastroenteritis will often clear up on its own without any treatment. However, vomiting and diarrhea can cause dehydration, so it is important to stay hydrated. This is usually possible to achieve at home by drinking plenty of fluids, especially water.
Vomiting and diarrhea can also cause the body to lose essential minerals such as sodium, potassium, and calcium. Eating soups or broths can replace both fluid and minerals. Fluid and mineral replacement solutions are also available at drug stores.
If a person cannot keep fluids down or becomes too dehydrated, they may need to go to the hospital. There, a doctor will give them intravenous fluids and electrolytes.
In severe cases of bacterial gastroenteritis, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics.
Generally, people can treat the symptoms of bacterial gastroenteritis at home by:
- getting plenty of rest
- drinking enough fluids to stay hydrated
- eating small amounts of mineral-rich food at regular intervals
- avoiding dairy products, foods high in fiber, and fruit
- avoiding sports or soft drinks, or other drinks that are high in sugar
It is best to speak to a doctor before taking any over-the-counter (OTC) medications to treat bacterial gastroenteritis, as some medications may prolong symptoms.
A person can use the following hygiene practices to try to prevent bacterial gastroenteritis:
- washing the hands thoroughly before handling foods and after using the bathroom
- washing the hands thoroughly after touching animals, especially farm animals
- using a separate cutting board for raw meat
- washing vegetables, fruits, and salads thoroughly before eating them
- avoiding close contact with people who have gastroenteritis
- drinking bottled water when traveling, especially in developing countries
- avoiding eating raw meat and fish
- avoiding drinking unpasteurized milk
- storing food appropriately and discarding any items that expire or spoil
- keeping the kitchen and bathroom clean
The following precautions can help someone with bacterial gastroenteritis to avoid spreading the infection to other people:
- avoiding close contact with others and staying home from work or school
- washing the hands frequently
- avoiding cooking or handling foods that other people may eat
- cleaning door handles and other shared objects after touching them
For most people, bacterial gastroenteritis will resolve within a week or so.
The most common complication is dehydration, which occurs when people lose fluids from vomiting and diarrhea and do not replace them. If a person becomes too dehydrated, they may need to go to the hospital.
Children and older adults have a higher risk of developing complications, so any caregivers should monitor them closely.
Complications can include:
- high fever
- muscle aches
- loss of bowel control
- bleeding in the intestinal tract, which can lead to bloody stools
- kidney failure
In very rare cases, untreated bacterial gastroenteritis can result in brain damage or death. Anyone who experiences severe or persistent symptoms should seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Most cases of bacterial gastroenteritis will usually clear up within a week. People with bacterial gastroenteritis should drink plenty of fluids and get as much rest as possible. They should also avoid contact with other people and practice good hygiene to avoid spreading the infection.
Children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems are at greater risk of experiencing complications.
A person should seek medical attention if they become heavily dehydrated, cannot keep fluids down, or experience severe or persistent symptoms.