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Bacterial gastroenteritis

Definition

Bacterial gastroenteritis is inflammation of the stomach and intestines caused by bacteria.

Alternative Names

Infectious diarrhea - bacterial gastroenteritis; Acute gastroenteritis; Gastroenteritis - bacterial

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Bacterial gastroenteritis can affect one person or a group of people who all ate the same contaminated food. It more commonly occurs after eating at picnics, school cafeterias, large social functions, or restaurants.

The germs may get into the food you eat (called contamination) in different ways:

  • Meat or poultry may come into contact with the normal bacteria from the intestines of an animal being processed.
  • Water that is used during growing or shipping may contain manure or human waste.
  • Food handling or preparation in grocery stores, restaurants, or homes.

Food poisoning often occurs from eating or drinking:

  • Any food prepared by someone who does not use proper hand washing techniques
  • Any food prepared using cooking utensils, cutting boards, or other tools that are not fully cleaned
  • Dairy products or food containing mayonnaise (such as coleslaw or potato salad) that have sat out of the refrigerator too long
  • Frozen or refrigerated foods that are not stored at the proper temperature or are not reheated properly
  • Raw fish or oysters
  • Raw fruits or vegetables that have not been washed well
  • Raw vegetable or fruit juices and dairy (look for the word "pasteurized")
  • Undercooked meats or eggs
  • Water from a well or stream, or city or town water that has not been treated

Many different types of bacteria can cause bacterial gastroenteritis, including:

Symptoms

Each organism causes slightly different symptoms but all result in diarrhea. Other symptoms include:

Signs and tests

  • Examination of food for bacteria
  • Stool culture positive for the bacteria that causes the infection
  • White blood cells in the stool

This disease may also alter the results of the following tests:

Treatment

You will usually recover from the most common types of bacterial gastroenteritis within a couple of days. The goal is to make you feel better and avoid dehydration.

  • Don't eat solid foods until the diarrhea has passed, and avoid dairy products, which can make diarrhea worse (due to a temporary state of lactose intolerance).
  • Drink any fluid (except milk or caffeinated beverages) to replace fluids lost by diarrhea and vomiting.
  • Give children an electrolyte solution sold in drugstores. See also: Diarrhea in children

If you have diarrhea and are unable to drink fluids (for example, due to nausea or vomiting), you may need medical attention and intravenous fluids (fluids into your veins). This is especially true for young children.

If you take diuretics, you need to manage diarrhea carefully. Talk to your health care provider -- you may need to stop taking the diuretic while you have the diarrhea. NEVER stop or change medications without talking to your health care provider and getting specific instructions.

For the most common causes of bacterial gastroenteritis, your doctor would NOT prescribe antibiotics, unless the diarrhea is unusually severe.

You can buy medicines at the drugstore that can help stop or slow diarrhea. Do not use these medicines without talking to your health care provider if you have bloody diarrhea or a fever. Do not give these medicines to children.

Expectations (prognosis)

In most cases, symptoms improve with fluid and electrolyte replacement within a week. Rare cases of kidney failure or death related to bacterial gastroenteritis have been reported.

There have been increasing incidents of local outbreaks of severe infection with certain strains of E. coli bacteria. These outbreaks can be dangerous, especially to the elderly or very young children.

Complications

  • Dehydration
  • Kidney failure (rare)
  • Low blood counts (anemia)
  • Systemic (body-wide) infection

Calling your health care provider

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if:

  • You have blood or pus in your stools, or your stool is black
  • You have abdominal pain that does not go away after a bowel movement
  • You have symptoms of dehydration (thirst, dizziness, light-headedness)
  • You have a fever above 101°F, or your child has a fever above 100.4°F, along with diarrhea
  • You have recently traveled to a foreign country and developed diarrhea
  • Your diarrhea does not get better in 5 days (2 days for an infant or child), or gets worse
  • Your child has been vomiting for more than 12 hours (in a newborn under 3 months you should call as soon as vomiting or diarrhea begins)

Prevention

Proper handling, storage, and preparation of food -- in addition to good sanitation -- are principles of prevention.

See also: Preventing food poisoning

References

Sodha SV, Griffin PM, Hughes JM. Foodborne disease. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2009:chap 99.

Craig SA, Zich DK. Gastroenteritis. In: Marx JA, ed. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier;2009:chap 92.


Review Date: 1/20/2010
Reviewed By: Linda Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington School of Medicine; and George F Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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