Get exclusive member benefits & effect social change. Join Today
Bacterial gastroenteritis happens when bacteria causes an infection in your gut. This causes inflammation in your stomach and intestines. You may also experience symptoms like vomiting, severe abdominal cramps, and diarrhea.
While viruses cause many gastrointestinal infections, bacterial infections are also common. Some people call this infection "food poisoning."
Bacterial gastroenteritis can result from poor hygiene. Infection can also occur after close contact with animals or consuming food or water contaminated with bacteria (or the toxic substances bacteria produce).
Bacterial gastroenteritis symptoms vary depending on the bacteria causing your infection. The symptoms may include:
Call your doctor if your symptoms don’t improve after five days (two days for children). If a child older than three months continues to vomit after 12 hours, call a doctor. If a baby younger than three months has diarrhea or vomiting, call your doctor.
Treatment is meant to keep you hydrated and avoid complications. It’s important not to lose too much salt, such as sodium and potassium. Your body needs these in certain amounts in order 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. Antibiotics are usually reserved for the most severe cases.
If you have a milder case, you may be able to treat your illness at home. Try the following:
A few ingredients you may have at home can help keep your electrolytes balanced and treat diarrhea. Ginger can help combat infection and make stomach or abdominal pain less severe. Apple cider vinegar and basil can also soothe your stomach as well as strengthen your stomach against future infections.
Avoid eating dairy, fruit, or high-fiber foods to keep diarrhea from getting worse.
Over-the-counter medicines that neutralize your stomach acid can help fight these infections. Medicines that treat symptoms like diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal pains can help ease the stress and pain of the infection. Don’t take over-the-counter treatments unless your doctor tells you to do so.
Numerous bacteria can cause gastroenteritis, including:
Bacterial gastroenteritis outbreaks can happen when restaurants serve contaminated food to many people. An outbreak can also trigger recalls of produce and other foods.
Bacterial gastroenteritis can be easily transmitted from person to person if someone carries the bacteria on their hands. Every time a person infected with this bacteria touches food, objects, or other people, they risk spreading the infection to others. You can even cause the infection to get into your own body if you touch your eyes, mouth, or other open parts of your body with infected hands.
You’re especially at risk for these infections if you travel a lot or live in a crowded area. Washing your hands often and using hand sanitizer with more than 60 percent alcohol can help you avoid catching infections from the people around you.
If you already have gastroenteritis, take safety precautions to avoid spreading the bacteria to others.
Wash your hands after using the toilet and before handling food. Don’t prepare food for other people until your symptoms improve. Avoid close contact with others during your illness. After your symptoms stop, try to wait at least 48 hours before returning to work.
You can also help prevent bacterial gastroenteritis infections by avoiding unpasteurized milk, raw meat, or raw shellfish. Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw and cooked meats when preparing meals. Wash salads and vegetables thoroughly. Make sure to store food at either very hot or very cold temperatures if you’re storing them for more than a couple of hours.
Other preventative measures include:
If you have a weak immune system because of an existing condition or treatment, you may have a higher risk of bacterial gastroenteritis. The risk also increases if you take drugs that decrease stomach acidity.
Handling food incorrectly can also raise your risk of bacterial gastroenteritis. Food that’s undercooked, stored too long at room temperature, or not reheated well can aid in the spread and survival of bacteria.
Bacteria can produce harmful substances known as toxins. These toxins can remain even after reheating food.
Your doctor will ask questions about your illness and check for signs of dehydration and abdominal pain. To find out which bacteria is causing your infection, you may be required to provide a stool sample for analysis.
Your doctor may also take a blood sample to check for dehydration.
Bacterial gastroenteritis infections rarely cause complications in healthy adults and usually last less than a week. Older adults or very young children are more vulnerable to symptoms of gastroenteritis and are at higher risk for complications. These individuals should be closely monitored, as they may need medical care.
Complications of these infections include high fevers, muscle pain, and inability to control your bowel movements. Some bacterial infections can cause your kidneys to fail, bleeding in your intestinal tract, and anemia.
Some severe infections left untreated can cause brain damage and death. Quickly seeking treatment for bacterial gastroenteritis lessens your risk of having these complications.
Children can be more prone to bacterial gastroenteritis infections than adults. For example, a 2015 report states that children in the United States under a year old are more likely to get salmonella infections. Most salmonella infections happen when children consume contaminated food or water or come into contact with animals that carry the bacteria. Young children are also more likely to get infections from Clostridium difficile. These bacteria are mostly found in dirt and animal feces.
Children are more likely to develop infections from these types of bacteria. However, like adults, children are susceptible to any bacterial infections. Make sure your child practices good hygiene, washing their hands regularly, and avoiding putting their dirty hands in their mouths or near their eyes. Wash your own hands after changing your child’s diaper. Wash and prepare food thoroughly, cooking raw dishes like eggs, vegetables, and meat until they’re well done.
Many bacterial infection symptoms in children are the same as symptoms in adults. Young children are especially prone to diarrhea, vomiting, and fevers. One unique symptom of children with these infections is a dry diaper. If your child hasn’t needed a diaper change for over six hours, they may be dehydrated. Talk to your doctor right away if your child has any of these symptoms. If your child has diarrhea or other related symptoms, make sure they drink plenty of fluids.
After seeking treatment or medical care, get plenty of rest to help your body fight the infection. If you have diarrhea or vomiting, drink plenty of liquids to keep yourself hydrated. Don’t eat any dairy or fruit to avoid making your diarrhea worse. Sucking on ice cubes can help if you can’t keep food or water down.
Outbreaks of these bacterial infections can happen on food sold in many grocery stores. Keep up on news stories about public outbreaks of bacteria on certain types of food.
Bacterial gastroenteritis infections usually last for one to three days. In some cases, infections can last for weeks and be harmful if left untreated. Seek treatment as soon as you show symptoms of an infection to stop the infection from spreading. With good medical care and proper treatment, your infection will likely go away in a few days.
Written by: Helen Colledge, Marijane Leonard and Tim Jewell
Medically reviewed on: Jul 28, 2016: Judith Marcin, MD
Enter your symptoms in our Symptom Checker to find out possible causes of your symptoms. Go.
Enter any list of prescription drugs and see how they interact with each other and with other substances. Go.
Enter its color and shape information, and this tool helps you identify it. Go.
Find information on drug interactions, side effects, and more. Go.