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Bacterial Gastroenteritis

What Is Bacterial Gastroenteritis?

Bacterial gastroenteritis occurs when bacteria causes an infection in your gut. This condition causes inflammation in your stomach and intestines, and you may experience unpleasant symptoms such as vomiting, severe abdominal cramps, and diarrhea.

Viruses cause many infections of the gastrointestinal system, but bacterial infections are also quite common. Some people call this type of infection “food poisoning.”

Bacterial gastroenteritis can result from poor hygiene. Infection can also occur after coming in close contact with animals or consuming food or water that has been contaminated with bacteria (or the toxic substances they produce).

Causes of Bacterial Gastroenteritis

Numerous kinds of bacteria can cause gastroenteritis, including:

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

An outbreak of bacterial gastroenteritis can happen when restaurants serve contaminated food to many people. An outbreak can also trigger recalls of produce and other food products.

Risk Factors of Bacterial Gastroenteritis

If you have a weak immune system due to an existing condition or treatment, you may have a higher risk of bacterial gastroenteritis. The risk also increases if you take drugs that decrease the acidity in your stomach.

Handling food incorrectly can also raise your risk of bacterial gastroenteritis. If food is undercooked, stored at room temperature for too long, or insufficiently reheated, bacteria can survive and multiply quickly. Bacteria can produce harmful substances known as toxins. These toxins may remain after the reheating process.

Symptoms of Bacterial Gastroenteritis

The symptoms of bacterial gastroenteritis may vary depending on the type of bacteria causing your infection. The symptoms may include:

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

Call your doctor if your symptoms don’t improve after five days, or two days for children. If a child older than three months continues to vomit after 12 hours, call a doctor. Likewise, if a baby younger than three months has diarrhea or vomiting, call your doctor.

Diagnosing Bacterial Gastroenteritis

Your doctor will ask questions about your illness and check 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 may also be taken to check for evidence of dehydration.

Treating Bacterial Gastroenteritis

The goal of treatment is to keep you hydrated and avoid complications. It’s important not to lose too much salt, such as sodium and potassium. These must remain within certain ranges for your body to function properly.

If you have a serious case of bacterial gastroenteritis, you may be admitted to the hospital and given fluids and salts intravenously. Treatment with antibiotics is usually reserved for the most severe cases of gastroenteritis.

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.
  • Don’t take any medication without consulting your doctor.
  • If you can’t keep any fluids down, you may need hospital treatment.

Preventing Bacterial Gastroenteritis

If you already have gastroenteritis, you can take safety precautions to avoid spreading the bacteria to others. Make sure you wash your hands after using the toilet and before handling food. Avoid preparing food for other people until your symptoms improve. It also helps to avoid close contact with others during your illness. Additionally, wait 48 hours after your symptoms stop before returning to work.

You can also take measures to help prevent bacterial gastroenteritis infections. For example, avoid unpasteurized milk, raw meat, or raw shellfish. Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw and cooked meats when preparing meals. Thoroughly wash salads and vegetables. Additionally, make sure temperatures are either very hot or very cold if you’re storing foods for more than a couple of hours.

Other preventative measures include:

  • making sure kitchens are kept scrupulously clean
  • washing your hands after using the toilet, before handling different foods, after touching animals, and before eating
  • drinking bottled water when traveling abroad and taking any recommended vaccines


Bacterial gastroenteritis rarely causes complications in healthy adults. Most people recover in less than a week. Those who are elderly or very young are more vulnerable to the effects of gastroenteritis and are at higher risk for complications. These individuals should be closely monitored, as they may need medical care.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Helen Colledge, Marijane Leonard and Tim Jewell
Published on: Oct 15, 2015
Medically reviewed on: Jul 28, 2016: [Ljava.lang.Object;@3d6c76ab

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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