Everything You Need to Know About Bacterial Gastroenteritis


Gastroenteritis is the inflammation of the intestines and stomach and can affect people of all ages. While there are many causes, the bacterial form is linked to the growth of bad bacteria in the gut and is usually due to contaminated food or water sources. Many people often refer to it as food poisoning, with salmonella poisoning the most common reason for the condition.

However, medication side effects can also be to blame. The lack of good bacteria in the gut can also be a problem, as this cancels out the bad bacteria in many cases.

What are your options when you or your loved one has gastroenteritis? How do you know if someone close to you has it? Here’s all you need to know about the condition, with the steps when you need to seek medical help.

What Exactly Is Bacterial Gastroenteritis?

The bacterial form is caused by bacteria or parasites within food or water. This could be due to salmonella, E. coli and many more. The body isn’t designed to house the bacteria, meaning the immune system kicks off. The digestive system inflames, as the immune system gets to work on killing the infection. This can lead to all the symptoms of the condition.

In most of the cases, the condition doesn’t require medical attention. This is especially the case in a healthy adult. However, it can affect anyone and those with weak immune systems is likely to be affected worse by the bacteria. Younger and older people are also more likely to suffer worse since their immune systems are weaker than the average adult.

There are times medical intervention is needed. This will help to fight against the bacteria more effectively and support the whole system throughout the symptoms.

While bacterial gastroenteritis is one form, there are other reasons for the stomach and intestines to become inflamed. A virus can also be to blame, as well as food reactions. The latter is common in children who move from breastfeeding to solid food, as their immune system starts to understand more about the food being eaten.

Some medications can also lead to gastroenteritis. This will be something your doctor discusses with you, along with steps to look after yourself.

What Causes Bacterial Gastroenteritis?

When it comes to bacteria, you can get it from all food and water sources. There are some more likely sources than others, depending on where you live.

Meat and water contamination are the most common. Poultry and meat can be contaminated with bacteria during handling. Improper handling can also cause bacteria growth, whether in the grocery store, in a restaurant, or in your own home. Some common causes are due to unwashed hands, frozen and then defrosted and refrozen meats, storage at the wrong temperature and storage in the wrong place.

Dairy products and anything with mayonnaise can also lead to bacterial growth, especially when left out of the fridge. Raw fish and seafood have also been linked to bacteria growth when mishandled or not prepared properly.

As for water, it can be contaminated with human or animal waste. This is possible in the home if there’s a problem with the pipeline. If you get water from a well or stream, it can grow bacteria. You’ll need to treat it before using to get rid of the bacteria. If you don’t have anything to treat the water with, get it from as close to the source as possible to avoid the potential risk of contamination.

Fruits and vegetables don’t usually cause food poisoning, but they can. This is especially the case when it comes to juices that have been prepared or when the vegetables and fruits have been mishandled. Cross contamination from meat sources is possible.

While there are multiple types of bacteria causing gastroenteritis, the most common are:

  • coli
  • Salmonella
  • Staphylococcus
  • Campylobacter jejuni
  • Shigella
  • Yersinia

Symptoms of Food Poisoning

There are some common symptoms associated with gastroenteritis due to bacteria. Most people will feel cramping and pain in their abdomen and will usually have vomiting and diarrhea. The body is attempting to get rid of the bacteria anyway possible. In some cases, you may also experience a low-grade fever.

Most of these symptoms will disappear within 24-48 hours. Some of the bacterial infections are contagious, so you’ll want to remain away from others for 48 hours after the last bout of vomiting. This is especially the case for those with low immune systems.

In more severe cases, the condition can last for more than a week. If your symptoms do, talk to your doctor as you can find yourself malnourished and dehydrated due to the symptoms.

What to Do When You Have Gastroenteritis

You won’t want to do much when you’re ill. This is the type of illness that can knock you off your feet and leave you bedridden, at least for the first couple of days. Don’t force yourself to do anything while you’re suffering from the symptoms.

Allow your stomach to settle. You won’t feel like eating anything and that’s okay. Just make sure you take in some liquids. Water is good, but a sports drink can also help. Not only with the sports drink add the water, but also the electrolytes to help keep your body in order. You may feel more nauseous when you drink but take small sips throughout the day to keep your hydration levels up.

If you are struggling to get any water in at all, talk to your doctor. You run the risk of damaging other parts of your body from dehydration.

Watch your urination levels. You should always see light to clear urine and this should be frequently. If your urine is consistently dark, your body is becoming dehydrated. Seek medical attention if you’re unable to change the coloring or you’re unable to urinate.

You can take some medication to help manage the symptoms. Tylenol or another form of acetaminophen is the best option. It will help to take your low-grade fever down and offer some relief from the pain in your abdomen. However, you may find it hard to keep the medication down. Avoid aspirin, especially in children. While aspirin and ibuprofen can help to manage inflammation, it’s not going to help much against the bacteria.

When it comes to babies with bacterial gastroenteritis, keep a close eye on the symptoms. Your baby still needs to nurse, and they will tell you when they’re done. If they’re not keeping anything down, talk to your midwife or doctor immediately.

If you or your child is going to eat, opt for foods and drinks that have plenty of potassium. Sweet potatoes, bananas, and avocados are the best options for the levels, although avocados may be too fatty for the digestive system. Bananas tend to be the most favored since you likely have them in the house and they can be mashed easily.

In some cases, medications that neutralize the stomach acid can help. These aren’t usually suitable for children but can help adults. You can get many over the counter.

Getting Back into Eating

Eventually, you will feel the ability to eat again. You want to do this slowly and carefully.

Start by eating bland foods. You want something that is easy to digest, so your digestive system gets used to breaking down food again. Chicken soup is one of the most commonly used foods for those ill and that is because it is bland and soft. It is also filling and nutritious, so you help to support the overall health while boosting the digestive health. You can also opt for toast, soda crackers, rice, and even bananas.

If you feel nauseous, stop eating. This is not about feeling full, but about putting food back on your stomach to help support your body.

Avoid milk and other dairy products. Even pasteurized options can make your condition worse. You will also want to avoid fatty foods, alcohol, and caffeine. A little ginger or garlic can be beneficial for the gut but avoid foods that are highly seasoned.

Follow the same tips for your children getting back into eating after a bout of gastroenteritis. Avoid candy and soda. Not only are they empty calories, but they can also make diarrhea worse.

Avoid food that is high in fiber for the first few days after the condition. High fiber foods need extra work from your digestive system and it is going to need recovery time after the illness. Keep things simple and opt for more liquids than solids at first. After a few days, you’ll start to feel normal again and can move back into your regular diet.

When Should You Seek Medical Attention?

In most of the cases, the condition will go away on its own. It can take time and you’ll feel rough, but your body will do all the work for you. However, there are times that the bacteria are too strong.

If your vomiting continues for more than two days, whether young or an adult, you should talk to your doctor. The same applies if diarrhea continues for more than a few days. You should also discuss medical needs if you’re dehydrated, such as urination problems or you’re fainting when standing.

If you or your child is confused, this could be a sign of dehydration and needs medical help. Other signs of dehydration include dry skin and mouth, crying without tears and sunken eyes. In infants, the soft spot on the head will become sunken if dehydrated. Diapers will also remain dry for 3+ hours and this can turn serious, so talk to your doctor at once.

Some abdominal cramping is common. However, this cramping gets become intense and worrisome. If this is the case or it doesn’t go away after a couple of days, talk to your doctor. A fever over 101F or bloody stools are also reasons to speak to a doctor.

Regardless of the level of fever, if it lasts for more than a day in a child under 2, take directly to the doctor. If the child is over 2, take to the doctor if the fever continues for 3+ days.

Preventing the Spread of Bacterial Gastroenteritis

This is a highly contagious condition, usually spread through the bacteria released from vomiting and diarrhea. You want to limit the spread of the condition, especially with those in your home.

Wash your hands after you use the toilet, whether there’s diarrhea or none. You should also wash your hands before handling any food. Contamination is highly likely, and you can continue spreading the bacteria throughout the family. If you can avoid it, don’t prepare food for anyone else while you’re ill. This isn’t always possible for parents, so you’ll want to limit the spread by washing your hands regularly.

Remain away from people for 48 hours after your symptoms disappear. Even if the symptoms are mild, you can be contagious for up to 48 hours. Most schools and nurseries will have this policy in place for children and will make a note of the condition to protect all other children around them.

You can also take steps to prevent bacterial gastroenteritis occurring again. One of the best tips is to watch how you prepare food. Use separate chopping boards for meats and for vegetables and fruits. You should also have separate boards for uncooked and cooked meats to avoid the cross-contamination. Make sure you wash all fruits and vegetables fully before eating and store food correctly.

Keep your meats at the bottom of your fridge to avoid blood dripping accidentally onto other foods. You should also store at very cold or very hot temperatures when storing for longer than a few hours. The freezer is your best friend! When reheating food, cook through fully before eating.

When traveling, follow the medical advice when it comes to vaccinations and drinking water. Many countries don’t treat their tap water, making it unsuitable for drinking. You’ll need to stock up on bottled water. This is also something to do if your own water company alerts you to problems with your pipes until the problem is solved.

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