Gastrointestinal infection: What You Need To Know

By | October 6, 2021

Viral gastroenteritis: it is an ugly moniker, one that describes an even more unpleasant condition. We have all had the stomach flu before. What happens when these acute symptoms begin taking on a life of their own?

If abnormal bowel movements and abdominal cramps have you down and out, a problem in your gastrointestinal tract may be to blame. In severe cases, you may even need to consult a doctor. 

Intestinal infections are no laughing matter – here is everything that you need to know.

What Is Gastroenteritis?

Sometimes, infection occurs in the gastrointestinal system, the lining of the stomach, and large intestines[1] in particular. Abdominal cramps and diarrhea ensue. We end up in bed and miserable all week long. Why?

Foodborne illness worldwide is largely responsible for digestive and kidney diseases of this nature globally. While eating contaminated food is one way to acquire an intestinal infection, contaminated food or water is far from the only source of infection in the gut and small intestine. 

Symptoms of Bacterial Gastroenteritis

Some common symptoms of gastroenteritis include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Severe diarrhea
  • Excessive thirst
  • Dehydration
  • Deep yellow urine
  • High fever
  • Sudden and unexplained weight loss

If you are suffering from pain, diarrhea, bloody stools, or any other common symptoms, your large intestine or small intestine may have a secret to share with you. 

If left unchecked, you may develop other symptoms over time aside from bloody diarrhea and abdominal pain in the short term. These severe symptoms may include:

This list of symptoms ranging from abdominal pain to excessive diarrhea could potentially have many possible causes. If any of the following apply to you, however, one of several types of gastrointestinal infections may, in fact, be what you’re dealing with:

  • You have traveled recently
  • You have recently eaten contaminated food or under-cooked meat, commonly carrying E. coli or other dangerous bacterial infections 
  • You have handled either human feces or animal feces (Doubly so if the stool was soft or happened to be diarrhea)
  • You socialized with infected people in the past few days
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Those who find themselves in any of the following categories may be at a higher risk of contracting bacterial or viral gastroenteritis, especially after exposure to contaminated food or water:

  • Young children; a constantly-wet diaper is one common symptom that may be an indicator of trouble
  • The elderly or infirmed
  • Those with a weakened immune system or another similar medical condition
  • Those who have recently undergone an unrelated round of antibiotics, the use of which has been shown to impair the balance of bacteria in the gut (Antibiotics do not cause this disease, per se, but they have been shown to aggravate the symptoms of gastroenteritis[3])

If you are experiencing unexplained diarrhea, discomfort, or any other symptoms and worry about affecting people close to you, identifying the underlying cause and taking the problem to your doctor should be the next step.

Causes of Gastrointestinal Infections

The most common cause of gastroenteritis is bacteria, but there are also parasites and viral infections to consider, as well. As expected, places like nursing homes, schools, and other less-than-sanitary settings are often rife with the type of infection known to cause gastroenteritis. 

Water contaminated with bacteria like E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus is the most common cause of this illness; most will develop symptoms within a few days as the infection sets in.

The main culprits behind a gastroenteritis infection include:

  • Clostridium difficile, known especially[4] for its tendency to cause diarrhea
  • E. coli
  • Salmonella infections
  • Campylobacter 
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Giardia lamblia
  • Cryptosporidium parvum
  • Shigella
  • Rotavirus, a form of viral gastroenteritis (This used to be the leading cause of gastroenteritis and diarrhea in young children before a vaccine was developed[5])

Person-to-person transmission can keep the infection alive and strong between patients, but, as mentioned previously, food poisoning is the most common cause of gut infection. Exposure to the following are leading causes, whether viral gastroenteritis or bacterial:

  • Undercooked meat
  • Contaminated water or food
  • Exposure to the bacteria found in the diarrhea of an infected person or animal
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How to Treat Gastroenteritis?

Before anything else, you should consult your physician and receive a stool sample to rule out anything darker afoot. If your screening comes back clear, your means of recourse will be fairly straightforward.

No matter what the results end up being, rehydration is of the utmost importance, especially if you are suffering from severe diarrhea. In the most extreme cases, hospitalization and an IV drip may be necessary. 

Many physicians also recommend soft, mild food while sick – excessively spicy or fatty food may irritate your bowels and keep you sick for longer than you would be otherwise. Doctors also suggest avoiding over-the-counter drugs like Advil or Aspirin, as they may also upset your stomach further.

Once the virus, bacteria, or parasite has been cultured and identified, you may need a prescription that targets the problem directly. This will vary depending on the origin of the infection. Your doctor will be able to provide you with the appropriate medication, if applicable at all. 

Once your diagnosis has been confirmed, it is best to lay low for at least 48 hours[6]. For children especially, taking a day or two away from school or play is highly recommended. Bed rest, antibiotics[7], and plenty of fluids and soup are all the perfect prescriptions.

How to Prevent Gastroenteritis?

The good news is that there is plenty that you can do to avoid contracting gastroenteritis – there is a reason they tell us that E. coli lurks unseen in the raw cookie dough batter that tempts us as children.

To keep diarrhea, abdominal pain, and gastrointestinal infections at bay, we recommend that you:

  • Avoid food or water of dubious origin
  • When in doubt and away from home, try to drink only bottled water
  • Practice good hygiene, especially when preparing or handling food
  • Avoid raw or undercooked dairy products, eggs, meat products, and fish
  • Contact the Center for Disease Control if you worry that you may have ingested food or water contaminated with bacteria
  • After recovering from gastroenteritis, we suggest that you disinfect your home thoroughly – this includes all parts of your kitchen, your bathroom, your bedroom, and your nursing area and changing table if you live with young children
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Once you come down with gastroenteritis, most will agree that it is an experience that you will not soon forget. If you are meticulous about the cleanliness of your home, food, and family, you likely will not have anything to worry about in the future.

+ 7 sources

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  3. ‌Jabbar, A. and Wright, R.A. (2003). Gastroenteritis and antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Primary Care: Clinics in Office Practice, 30(1), pp.63–80.
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