Bacterial Digestive Infections

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What are bacterial digestive infections?

Bacterial digestive infections are diseases that affect the digestive organs as a result of ingesting of infectious bacterial organisms. Infectious bacteria scientifically known as Escherichia coli ( E coli) , Salmonella, and Shigella are among the most common causes of bacterial digestive infections. Each of these infections causes nausea with or without vomiting, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms. They may also cause bloody diarrhea, known as dysentery.

Bacterial digestive infections are common foodborne illnesses in the United States and spread among humans through contaminated food and water. Most commonly, people contract infected bacteria from drinking untreated, contaminated water or from eating raw, contaminated produce or undercooked meat, poultry or eggs. Once a person is infected, the bacteria live in the intestines and are passed in the stool of the infected person. Animals and insects can also be infected and spread the disease to humans.

The signs and symptoms of bacterial digestive infections can last five to seven days or longer. The disease course varies among individuals. Some people infected with bacterial digestive infections have mild symptoms, while others may have severe diarrhea with or without vomiting that can pose a risk of dehydration. Fortunately, bacterial infection can be treated successfully with antibiotics and fluid and nutritional support.

Left untreated, bacterial digestive infections may lead to severe dehydration. Severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalances can result in shock or coma and may be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have symptoms of severe dehydration such as confusion, lethargy, loss of consciousness, cold skin, or reduced urine production. Seek prompt medical care if you develop diarrhea and vomiting and believe you may have been exposed to contaminated food or water.

What are the symptoms of bacterial digestive infections?

Bacterial digestive infections cause irritation and inflammation of the intestines that may result in a number of symptoms. The symptoms can vary in intensity among individuals.

Common symptoms of bacterial digestive infections

The most common symptoms of bacterial digestive infections are related to disturbances of the digestive system and include:

Other symptoms of bacterial digestive infections

As a bacterial digestive infection progresses, symptoms of dehydration and other symptoms may develop including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

On rare occasions, dehydration resulting from bacterial digestive infections may be so severe that a life-threatening situation can develop. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of the following symptoms:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness

  • Change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations and delusions

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)

  • Severe abdominal pain

  • Severe dizziness

What causes bacterial digestive infections?

Bacterial digestive infections are most commonly caused by the bacteria Escherichia coli (E coli), Salmonella, and Shigella. Campylobacter is another type of bacteria that can cause infection of the gastrointestinal tract. The bacteria are present in the stool (feces) of infected people and animals. When water sources are contaminated with feces containing the pathogen, drinking from these water sources spreads the bacteria. Swimming in contaminated water may also result in contracting a bacterial digestive infection. For this reason, bacterial digestive infections occur most frequently in people traveling in developing countries or in children who touch infected human or animal feces without proper hand washing. Birds and insects can also carry the infectious bacteria to humans.

Listeria monocytogenes, another type of digestive infection-causing bacteria, has been found in raw and undercooked meats, unpasteurized milk, soft cheeses, and ready-to-eat deli meats and hot dogs. Vibrio is a bacterium that can contaminate fish or shellfish and Clostridium botulinum is a bacterium that can contaminate improperly canned foods and smoked and salted fish.

What are the risk factors for bacterial digestive infections?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing bacterial digestive infections. Not all people with risk factors will get bacterial digestive infections. Risk factors for bacterial digestive infections include:

  • Attendance or work in a day care setting
  • Close contact with an infected person or animal
  • Consumption of untreated water from lakes, rivers or streams
  • Fecal to oral contact
  • Travel in countries where the infection is common
  • Use of public swimming pools

Reducing your risk of bacterial digestive infections

You can lower your risk of developing or transmitting bacterial digestive infections by:

  • Drinking only purified water when backpacking, camping or hiking

  • Drinking only purified water when visiting developing countries

  • Not swallowing water in swimming pools, hot tubs, or other recreational water sources

  • Using purified water for brushing your teeth and washing food when visiting developing countries

  • Washing your hands well with soap and water after touching feces, having contact with an infected person or animal, changing diapers, or using the bathroom, and before eating or preparing food

How are bacterial digestive infections treated?

Treatment for bacterial digestive infections begins with seeking medical care from your health care provider. To determine if you have a bacterial digestive infection, your health care provider may ask you to provide stool samples for laboratory tests.

Antibiotic therapy is the mainstay of treatment for bacterial digestive infections and is highly effective. It is important that you follow your treatment plan for bacterial digestive infection precisely and take all of the antibiotics as instructed to avoid re-infection or recurrence.

Antibiotics for the treatment of bacterial digestive infections

Antibiotic medications that are effective in the treatment of bacterial digestive infections include:

  • Ceftriaxone (Rocephin)
  • Ciprofloxacin (Cipro)
  • Trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim, Septra)

If you have diarrhea and vomiting, your health care provider may also recommend fluid and electrolyte replenishment as a component of successful treatment

What you can do to improve your bacterial digestive infections

In addition to following your health care provider’s instructions and taking all medications as prescribed, you can speed your recovery by:

  • Ensuring adequate hydration by drinking plenty of water and electrolyte solutions
  • Getting plenty of rest

If you have a bacterial digestive infection, it is important to practice good hygiene to avoid spreading the infection to those who have close contact with you. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water after using the bathroom or touching any contaminated bedding or clothing. Do not use public pools, hot tubs, or recreational water facilities until your infection has cleared.

What are the potential complications of bacterial digestive infections?

You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of bacterial digestive infections include:

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 16
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Shigellosis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  2. Foodborne Illness. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC).