Intestinal infection symptoms can be extremely painful. Intestinal pain caused by bacterial infections can result in diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, dehydration, headaches and a number of other uncomfortable conditions. These intestinal infections are contagious, and nearly 200 million Americans are infected every year.
Fortunately, many of these infections go unnoticed because they produce no symptoms, and they just clear up on their own—but sometimes they can cause debilitating illnesses. The symptoms are caused when viruses, parasites, or bacteria are ingested and infiltrate the intestine.
There are many kinds of bacterial infection, and each comes with varying degrees of severity. Thankfully, you can protect yourself from almost all of them with minimal effort.
What Are the Types of Intestinal Infection?
Intestinal infections come in many forms, including colon infections and staph infections, but they are all caused by viral and bacterial infections. Here are a few of the more common ones.
- Adenovirus: This commonly causes respiratory problems.
- Campylobacter: This genus is one of the most common causes of gastroenteritis, and is typically borne on raw or uncooked meat (especially poultry) and contaminated milk.
- Clostridium difficile: This bacterium is usually contracted in hospitals and healthcare facilities and spread though feces. Certain strains can be very dangerous, and C. difficile infections are particularly dangerous for older populations.
- Escherichia coli: This bacterium is contracted through contaminated water, usually water that’s come into contact with human or animal feces. It can also be found on meat and plants.
- Helicobacter pylori: This common bacterium is found naturally in a number of people. It can lead to ulcers in some, and certain H. pylori compounds may also help battle asthma. It’s often asymptomatic, but it can cause problems in some people.
- Rotavirus: This is a common cause of diarrhea in young children. It’s spread from feces to mouth, and the bacteria must enter directly in the mouth to begin an infection. While that may sound unlikely to occur, it’s important to remember that particles of feces can be found on doors, food, and countless other surfaces, so the risk of infection is higher than you might think.
- Salmonella and Shigella: Both of these are foodborne gastrointestinal infections. Salmonella is usually found on raw meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, milk, and dairy, and Shigella is typically found in water that has been contaminated with human feces.
- Staphylococcus aureus: Also known as an intestinal staph infection, S. aureus is the most common cause of food poisoning. It’s found on human skin and can contaminate a wide range of food products including meat, poultry, eggs, salads, dairy, and baked goods.
Which Bacteria Cause Intestinal Infections?
You can get a bacterial infection from ingestion. Often these infections are asymptomatic, or if symptoms are present, they pass within a few days. But sometimes these infections lead to more severe complications. Here are some common infections and how they might affect you.
There are a few different types of Salmonella that can cause illness, each with varying severity. Salmonella infections can lead to typhoid fever, which is the most severe illness the bacterium is known for. There are about 12.5 million cases of typhoid worldwide per year, however only 400 of them occur in the United States. Salmonella spreads when contaminated food or water is consumed.
Salmonellosis is far more common, but is remarkably less severe. You can get it by eating contaminated meat, dairy, poultry, and eggs. Most of the time there are no symptoms, or they only last for a very short period of time.
Shigella is transmitted through feces and can be found in contaminated water that may make its way on to other surfaces. This genus of bacteria causes intestinal inflammation.
3. E. coli
E. coli is typically found inside the intestines of cattle, which is why it’s usually contracted by eating undercooked beef, particularly ground chuck. The bacteria can also get onto surfaces if they are touched after handling raw meat. Although it’s most common in raw meat, this bacterium can also come from contaminated water, unpasteurized dairy and juice, and even fruits and vegetables.
This genus of bacteria is the most common cause of bacterial diarrhea in the United States, accounting for almost 99 percent of cases. Campylobacter lives in animals, and particularly birds, which is why it’s commonly the result of eating undercooked poultry. It’s also possible to get infected with campylobacter by drinking unpasteurized milk or drinking contaminated water.
5. C. difficile
This bacterium naturally lines the intestinal tracts of babies and young children without causing them any harm. However, this is not the case with adults—particularly older adults. It’s found in feces, and, again, while that may sound easy to avoid, remember that particles of fecal matter can be virtually anywhere. That said, the high-risk locations for C. difficile include hospitals and care facilities, and it’s spread if workers touch feces or contaminated surfaces, and then touch patients or administer medicine without washing their hands in between. The risk factors for a C. difficile infection include staying at a hospital, taking antibiotics, or undergoing gastrointestinal surgery.
Intestinal staph infections cause food-poisoning symptoms and occur when infected individuals handle foods. The bacterium spreads and grows on the food, ready to infect those who eat it.
Listeria is found in soil and in the intestinal tracts of humans and animals. People become infected when they eat vegetables grown in contaminated soil, or if they consume raw, uncooked meat, contaminated drinking water, and milk products.
Symptoms of Intestinal Infections
Each bacterium will cause slight variations in symptoms, most of which are:
- Sinus troubles;
- Loss of appetite;
- Abdominal pain;
- Irritable bowls (which may lead you to believe you have a colon infection);
- Trouble sleeping;
- Teeth grinding;
- Skin rashes;
- Fever; and
How Are Intestinal Infections Diagnosed?
Most of the time you probably won’t even notice that you have a bacterial infection, as your immune system will take care of it. And other times, you might have some symptoms, which can be either mild or severe, but they will usually disappear in as little as a couple of hours or they could linger for up to three days.
If your symptoms last longer, are more severe, and/or are recurring, then you should get checked out by a doctor. A doctor can:
- Offer a diagnosis based on your description of the symptoms; and
- Order some tests, if needed. A common test for a bacterial or a parasitic intestinal infection is a stool sample.
If there is an outbreak of a certain infection, it’s usually localized, so with enough information, doctors can more easily pin down what’s happening to you, since it’s happening to many people. Recent examples include an E. coli outbreak in Chipotle restaurants and a Listeria outbreak in Dole salads.
Lastly, if you’ve travelled to certain countries where there is a higher risk for illness, it becomes a little easier for doctors to make an accurate diagnosis should you come down with an intestinal infection.
Are Intestinal Infections Contagious?
Intestinal infections are contagious and can be spread in a number of ways, including:
- Touching a surface that someone has contaminated, then putting your hands in your mouth before washing them;
- Eating food that has been prepared in a contaminated kitchen;
- Changing a diaper, then touching your mouth or not washing your hands immediately afterward;
- Sexual contact;
- Touching certain animals;
- Dirty hands in general; and
- Eating or drinking contaminated food, water, or juice.
How to Treat Intestinal Infections Naturally
Most bacterial infections will only impact you for a couple of days, so waiting them out is the most common treatment. It’s important to remember, however, that during these infections you need to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Some other treatments include:
1. Practicing Good Hygiene
Also the best preventative measure, good hygiene during treatment is also a way to protect yourself from getting any worse. After all, if you’re infected you want to take extra care that you don’t spread the bacteria onto the other surfaces in your home, including taps, doorknobs, and food. To do this, make sure you’re washing your hands regularly, especially after going to the bathroom, arriving home from outdoors, and before and after food preparation.
2. Ensuring Your Food Is Cooked Thoroughly
Although eating meat isn’t the best thing for your stomach when treating intestinal infections—because it’s relatively difficult to break down and your digestive system is already taxed—you want to make sure it’s cooked properly. When meat is cooked thoroughly, infection-causing bacteria are killed. This is essential when you’re trying to recover so that you don’t feed more bad bacteria in your system. There are different cooking temperatures for different meats, so here are some guidelines:
- Chicken breasts should be cooked so that they are a consistent white color throughout. Any signs of pink inside mean it’s not fully cooked and could cause illness.
- Chicken thighs, on the other hand, are dark meat, so they will not be white throughout. Instead, they should be a light brown color. Bloody spots and purple areas means they should be cooked a little more.
- Ground beef (especially chuck) should be thoroughly cooked until there is no trace of pink throughout.
- Certain cuts of steak, such as sirloin or filet mignon need to be cooked on the outside, but the inside can be pink.
3. Adjusting Your Diet
Drinking plenty of water and limiting your intake of processed, sugary, and fatty foods are essential components of treatment for an intestinal infection. Eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and pro- or pre-biotic foods with fiber and active “good” bacteria are also easy on your stomach and promote the proliferation of a better-balanced microbial population in the gut. Chewing on ginger may help, and peppermint tea might also offer some relief.
Is Intestinal Infection Linked to Other Health Conditions?
Yes and no. Although some populations—infants, the elderly, and people with autoimmune diseases—may be more prone to and face complications from intestinal bacterial infections, the bulk of the population likely won’t develop severe long-term health conditions. However, if an infection lasts long enough or is very aggressive, it may contribute to (or be reinforced by):
- Irritable bowel syndrome; and
- Can be dangerous for people undergoing chemo or with autoimmune disorders such as HIV/AIDS or Crohn’s disease.
How Can Intestinal Infections Be Prevented?
Preventing intestinal infections is much easier said than done, because microbes and bacteria are everywhere and cover virtually every surface: they’re in the air, in the water, on the ground, and on the walls, and people are covered in them. And because bacteria are microscopic, you can’t see them, so they easily become an afterthought; that’s just human nature. But that said, there are a few easy steps you can take that can go a long way toward lowering your chances of getting an intestinal infection, including:
- Washing food thoroughly;
- Washing surfaces that come into contact with uncooked food, such as knives, cutting boards, tongs, and countertops using soap and hot water (and for that matter, don’t put raw meat in the sink, either);
- Washing your hands before and after handling food;
- Cooking food thoroughly;
- Washing your hands thoroughly, especially after using the bathroom or touching an animal;
- Washing your hands when coming in from outside;
- Researching before travelling;
- Checking the CDC or FDA websites for any food recalls/warnings about items/restaurants in your area; and
- Limiting your reliance on antibiotics.
When to See Your Doctor
A doctor’s visit is recommended if you’ve been experiencing symptoms without improvement for about four days. If you become violently ill and have aggressive symptoms—even though you’re staying hydrated—it might be worthwhile to go the doctor a little bit earlier. Most cases of illness, however, will pass within a few days. Additionally, hospitals are not always the best place to be if you’re battling a bacterial illness. In many cases the doctor will send you home and tell you to rest, stay hydrated, and wait it out. It’s recommended to call your doctor if:
- You are unable to keep liquids down for a 24-hour period;
- You’ve been vomiting for more than two days;
- There is blood in your vomit;
- You’re experiencing dehydration: excessive thirst, dry mouth, dark yellow or brown urine, little or no urine, severe weakness, dizziness, and lightheadedness;
- There is blood in your bowel movements; and
- You have a fever above 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sources for Today’s Article:
Blaser, M., Missing Microbes (Toronto: Henry Holt and Company, 2014), 123–130.
Amadei, A., et al. “The Effect of Helicobacter pylori on Asthma and Allergy,” Journal of Asthma and Allergy, 2010; doi:10.2147/JAA.S8971.
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“Intestinal Infections,” Human Diseases and Conditions web site, 2016; http://www.humanillnesses.com/Infectious-Diseases-He-My/Intestinal-Infections.html, last accessed April 15, 2016.
“Viral Gastroenteritis,” Mayo Clinic web site, December 2, 2014; http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/viral-gastroenteritis/basics/symptoms/con-20019350, last accessed April 15, 2016.