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Overview of Gastrointestinal Infections

Are you suffering from watery diarrhea that has lasted more than a few days? Are there signs of blood or mucus in your stool? Are these symptoms accompanied by fever, vomiting, and cramping? If so, you may have a gastrointestinal infection.

Sometimes, diarrhea is simply due to some part of our recent diet that didn’t agree with our bodies or an illness our body is fighting off. Other times, however, it is due to ingestion of a microbe that can potentially make us sick for many days, inducing watery diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and other unpleasant symptoms. There are many viruses, parasites, and bacteria that can infect our gastrointestinal systems if we happen to consume them.

Symptoms of Gastrointestinal Infections

In addition to diarrhea and vomiting, gastrointestinal infections can cause fevers, abdominal cramping, and loss of appetite. If these symptoms last for several days, weight loss and dehydration can occur. In some cases, there may be mucus or blood visible in the stool, as well. If the symptoms do not clear within a few days or if you find blood in your stool, you should contact your doctor.

Risk Factors of Gastrointestinal Infections

The biggest risk during a gastrointestinal infection is dehydration. Because the vomiting and diarrhea are so unpleasant, it may be tempting to stop taking in liquids. It is critically important to stay hydrated, however, particularly for young children and infants. Fevers should also be monitored in children with these infections, as excessively high body temperature could lead to seizures.

Depending on the pathogen, gastrointestinal infections can also be extremely contagious. Any small quantity of germs may easily infect another person via a door knob, sink spigot, or contaminated food or water. Very frequent hand washing is highly recommended. If you can avoid going to work while suffering from such an illness (or keeping your child at home during their illness), you are advised to do so to avoid spreading it to others. Although the infection may be difficult to contain when sharing a home with another person, confining the ill person’s toilet use to a single bathroom may help avoid spreading the infection.

Causes of Gastrointestinal Infections

Through excellent hygiene, clean drinking water, and safe food preparation, most gastrointestinal infections can be avoided. Most infections occur through what is called the fecal-oral route, in which trace amounts of infected fecal particles are unintentionally consumed. Although this sounds impossible in a society with good sanitation, something as simple as poor hand washing habits after using the restroom can spread diseases to other people through door knobs, shared hand towels, or direct contact. If the recipient happens to touch their mouth or food, they may become infected. Certainly, infected food preparation areas (or food preparers) in restaurants are also a potential sources of illness.

The most common gastrointestinal infections are caused by bacteria, including Bacillus cereus, Campylobacter, Salmonella, and E. coli O157:H7. These are very commonly acquired by eating undercooked foods. Both Campylobacter and Salmonella, for example, are bacteria normally found in the intestines of healthy birds. Because of the way that the food processing industry commercially prepares poultry, chicken that you buy at the grocery store is completely covered in these types of bacteria. This is why it is critically important to make sure that chicken is cooked through to the center of the meat. Salmonella is particularly dangerous for people with weakened immune systems as it can make its way into the bloodstream, causing a potentially fatal infection. E. coli O157 is another bacterium that may be life-threatening if ingested. This bacterium is normally associated with cattle, and should the cow’s feces come into contact with food or water that is consumed, an infection can occur that results in severe bloody diarrhea.

There are also highly infectious viruses that can cause gastrointestinal infections, such as the Norovirus, which accounts for approximately 50% of foodborne illness outbreaks in the US and 90% of non-bacterial outbreaks around the world. It can be spread rapidly through person to person contact, particularly in enclosed communities, such as hospitals, prisons, dormitories, long-term care facilities, and cruise ships. Due to particular properties of the virus, it is not easily killed by soaps and detergents, but can be cleansed away with bleach.

Gastrointestinal parasite infections typically come from contaminated food or water. The parasite Giardia lamblia is often consumed by hikers that are drinking stream water, for example. Despite how clean the water in the wilderness may look, it is important to boil or filter it to remove parasites and other microorganisms before drinking it.

Conventional Treatment of Gastrointestinal Infections

Most of these infections will clear up without treatment, since the gastrointestinal system empties itself even more regularly than normal in response to the infection. Because of the fluids lost, however, most people find that rehydration is necessary. This can be done by drinking ample fluids with electrolytes (Gatorade is an excellent source, for example). In cases of severe dehydration, doctors may also recommend that intravenous fluids be administered.

If you visit a doctor for your symptoms, they may also take a stool specimen to culture it and determine the source of the infection (particularly if there is blood in the stool). If you have acquired a parasite, they may prescribe antiparasitic drugs to help you clear the infection. Antibiotics are normally not administered unless a person has a weakened immune system because they can very often make the diarrheal symptoms worse. Some physicians now recommend the use of probiotics to help treat infections, as it helps restore and maintain the population of healthy bacteria that normally resides in the digestive system.

Although anti-diarrheal medications are tempting for quick symptom relief, they are generally not recommended for gastrointestinal infections because they prevent the body from eliminating the infectious organisms through the stool. Antiemetics to reduce nausea and vomiting may be administered safely, however, to aid in rehydration.

Patients Medical's Treatment of Gastrointestinal Infections

No matter the severity of the gastrointestinal infection that you are suffering through, Patients Medical is prepared to help you with a treatment program designed to address your symptoms. During your initial consultation, we will learn of all your concerns and collect specimens for testing. Following diagnosis, we can help devise a program that will help your infection clear up as quickly and comfortably as possible.

In addition to making sure that you are taking in plenty of fluids to stay hydrated, we may recommend probiotic therapies such as UltraFlora IB™. Each capsule contains friendly bacteria Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis, which can help repopulate the gastrointestinal tract and relieve abdominal discomforts. We may also suggest supplements such as SpectraZyme®, an enzyme formula that can help relieve bloating and gas by aiding digestion of sugars, carbohydrates, and proteins. To reduce nausea, reflux, and indigestion, we may recommend Zinlori 75®, a zinc supplement that helps support many aspects of gastric cell health.

Next Steps:

Poor health can significantly affect your life. Improve your life by changing to good health. Call our patient coordinator at 1-212-679-9667 or click on Request an Appointment to schedule an appointment with one of our doctors for evaluation and testing.

We are located at: Patients Medical PC, 800 Second Avenue, Suite 900 (Between 42nd & 43rd Street), Manhattan, NYC, New York, NY 10017.

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Article Last Updated: 08/26/2015