What is gastroenteritis?

Gastroenteritis is an inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, which includes your stomach and intestines, and is commonly called the "stomach flu." Gastroenteritis usually causes severe symptoms and can even be fatal.

How does bacterial gastroenteritis spread?

Gastroenteritis is spread by the following two ways:

  • Contaminated food or water: You're most likely to get gastroenteritis by consuming food or water containing harmful bacteria, such as salmonella, campylobacter, and E coli. Food can become contaminated when food handlers don't wash their hands or when food isn't stored, handled or cooked properly.
  • The fecal-oral route: People with bacterial gastroenteritis have harmful bacteria in their stool. When they don't wash their hands well after using the bathroom, they can spread the germs to objects. If you touch the same objects, you can pick up the germs on your hands and transfer them to your mouth.

Gastroenteritis symptoms

Many kinds of bacteria cause gastroenteritis, so symptoms can vary. In some types of gastroenteritis, symptoms come on quickly. In others, they don't appear for 24 to 48 hours. Gastroenteritis symptoms can range from mild to severe and may include:

  • Watery diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever and chills
  • Abdominal pain
  • Blood in the stool, in severe cases

How is gastroenteritis diagnosed?

Your physician will take a complete health history; be sure to mention any recent trips and what you ate before you became ill. Keep in mind that gastroenteritis symptoms may not appear for a day or two after you become infected. You may be asked to provide a sample of your stool to help diagnose gastroenteritis. This is sent to a lab for testing. Don't forget to check with your doctor or hospital emergency department to learn the test results. In some cases, you will be asked to see your doctor for follow-up care.

Bacterial gastroenteritis treatment

  • Bacterial gastroenteritis often goes away without treatment. In some cases, symptoms are gone in a day or two. In others, gastroenteritis symptoms linger for weeks. In some cases, it can take months for your bowels to return to normal.
  • Replacing fluids lost through diarrhea and vomiting is important for a full recovery. If you are very dehydrated, you may need fluids through an IV line in the hospital as part of your gastroenteritis treatment.
  • Medications that slow diarrhea are prescribed occasionally, depending on what your physician thinks is the cause of your symptoms. However, these medications may prolong your illness.
  • Your physician will prescribe antibiotics only if your gastroenteritis symptoms are caused by certain types of bacteria.
  • You may be admitted to the hospital if your gastroenteritis symptoms are very severe.