Bacterial gastroenteritis occurs when bacteria cause an infection of the digestive system. People often refer to bacterial gastroenteritis as food poisoning.

Bacterial gastroenteritis commonly results from consuming 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.

This article looks at the causes, symptoms, and diagnosis of bacterial gastroenteritis. It also covers treatment, prevention, and complications.

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Many types of bacteria can cause bacterial gastroenteritis, including:

Learn more about which foods commonly cause food poisoning.

A person can get bacterial gastroenteritis after eating contaminated food or drinking or swallowing contaminated water. Improper storage, handling, and cooking practices can all lead to food becoming unsafe to consume.

Bacterial gastroenteritis spreads quickly from person to person, and people can get the bacteria on their hands by handling contaminated food or water. Harmful bacteria are also present in the stools of individuals with bacterial gastroenteritis.

Gastroenteritis can also be the result of a viral infection, such as rotavirus and norovirus.

Learn more about viral gastroenteritis.

The symptoms of bacterial gastroenteritis can vary between people and may depend on the bacterium causing the illness. In some cases, symptoms may not appear for up to 4 days after a person contracts an infection.

Symptoms can include:

If a person with bacterial gastroenteritis experiences diarrhea for more than 3 days, they should contact a doctor. It is also important to seek medical assistance if they experience fever, blood in their stool, or signs of severe dehydration.

A doctor will ask the individual about their symptoms. If they suspect bacterial gastroenteritis, they may request a stool sample to identify the type of bacterium causing the infection.

Bacterial gastroenteritis will often clear up on its own without any treatment. However, a person may need to rest and drink plenty of water to replace fluid lost through vomiting or diarrhea.

Vomiting and diarrhea can also cause the body to lose essential minerals such as sodium, potassium, and calcium. Eating nutritious, easily digestible meals can help replenish these minerals. If this is not possible, a person may wish to consume replacement fluids such as rehydration drinks.

Generally, people can treat the symptoms of bacterial gastroenteritis at home by:

It is best to speak with a doctor before taking any over-the-counter medications to treat bacterial gastroenteritis.

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 healthcare professional may prescribe antibiotics. However, some forms of bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to traditional antibiotic therapies. Excessive antibiotic use may also damage the digestive system.

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
  • 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

Practicing consistent hand washing and limiting contact with others can help stop the spread of bacterial gastroenteritis.

The most common complication of bacterial gastroenteritis 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 caregivers should monitor them closely.

These complications can include:

In very rare cases, without treatment, 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.