Often times, a gastrointestinal infection begins suddenly with vomiting or severe diarrhea. Diarrhea is when someone has very soft or liquid bowel movements within 24 hours, at least three times.

Diarrhea is often accompanied by abdominal pain, cramps, and flatulence. Diarrhea and nausea can sometimes be associated with fever, headache, and body aches.

In most cases, diarrhea is the result of a viral infection . Gastrointestinal infections (gastroenteritis) can also be caused by bacteria such as Salmonella or Campylobacter.

In the case of normal diarrhea, it is usually sufficient to compensate for the loss of fluid and wait until the gastrointestinal infection passes. However, severe or prolonged diarrhea must be treated because it can lead to a dangerous loss of salt and fluids, especially in young children and the elderly.

Symptoms of infectious diarrhea

Often times, a gastrointestinal infection begins suddenly with vomiting or severe diarrhea. Diarrhea is when someone has very soft or liquid bowel movements within 24 hours, at least three times.

It is often accompanied by abdominal pain, cramps, and flatulence . Diarrhea and nausea can sometimes be associated with fever, headache, and body aches.

Dizziness and circulatory problems can indicate that the body has lost too much fluid and salts (electrolytes). In this case you will need quick medical help. Other reasons to seek medical help for diarrhea are:

  • It does not improve after 48 hours.
  • High fever.
  • Blood in the stool (red blood or black stools).
  • Mucus deposition
  • Severe pain

Diarrhea itself is a symptom that can trigger more symptoms. In general, most people with diarrhea can go about their daily lives. Dehydration is imminent, as the body secretes too much fluid due to the constant secretion of stool.

Increased water loss can in turn bring a variety of other symptoms, such as headache, short-term dizziness, or general fatigue. Circulation is also compromised at times, as either too little food and too little fluid are supplied or both are separated again before the body can use them.

Partial inflammation of the anus also occurs. It is a strong itching or burning, in addition the redness is clearly visible.

Causes of gastrointestinal infections

Diarrhea can have many different causes. Among the most common is a gastrointestinal infection caused by the highly contagious Noro or Rotavirus , which generally affects young children and the elderly.

When traveling, infections with Shigella, certain coliform bacteria or parasites can cause diarrhea, depending on the destination and hygienic conditions.

Gastrointestinal infections are the most common cause of diarrhea. Viruses and bacteria, absorbed by an infection by fat or droplets, cause inflammation of the mucous membrane in the gastrointestinal tract. This inflammation, also called gastroenteritis, leads to diarrhea.

Diarrhea can also have other causes besides infections, these include:

  • Unknown food, for example on (long-distance) trips.
  • Food intolerances such as gluten or lactose intolerance.
  • A “nervous bowel” (irritable bowel syndrome).
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
  • Side Effects of Medications: In particular, antibiotics sometimes cause diarrhea by attacking the normal intestinal flora.

Important hints

Most of the time, acute diarrhea can be harmless. However, in case of profuse and watery diarrhea or frequent vomiting with high fluid loss, it is important to consult a doctor in good time to avoid circulatory failure.

This is especially important for infants and young children, people with weakened immune systems, or the elderly. Since older people often lose the sensation of thirst and hydrate themselves very little, the risk of dehydration is particularly high.

Signs of fluid loss from diarrhea

There may be several signs of severe fluid loss from gastrointestinal infections, including the following:

  • The general condition is deteriorating.
  • Eyes, cheeks, or face look haggard.
  • Your breathing or heart rate is faster than normal.
  • The skin is inelastic: if you take skin from the arm or belly with two fingers and pull gently, it does not return to its original shape, and remains as a small wrinkle.
  • Intense thirst, drowsiness, dark urine or lack of urinary frequency, as well as dry eyes, lips or dry tongue can also indicate an onset of dehydration.
  • Older people sometimes experience chest pain or muscle cramps.

Diagnosis of a gastrointestinal infection

On a visit to the doctor, these are the things he will ask you:

  • If the symptoms have occurred suddenly or gradually.
  • About the nature of the waste (consistency and appearance).
  • Since when did the diarrhea start and how often it occurs.
  • If you have discomfort such as abdominal pain, vomiting or fever.
  • What was eaten before the onset of diarrhea.

It is also important to:

  • If you have been traveling recently.
  • What medications have been or will be taken.
  • If there are known allergies or intolerances.
  • When there is a chronic disease such as diabetes.

If there is bloody or persistent diarrhea, a stool or blood sample may be needed to determine which pathogens have caused the infection. The same applies to diarrhea with mucus stool.

How You Can Prevent Gastroenteritis

Viruses and bacteria are spread through contact with feces, vomit, contaminated objects, water, or food.

In case of an acute diarrheal illness, regular washing of your hands with soap is very important to protect yourself and others from infection. Even a hand sanitizer can be helpful. If there is a second bathroom at home, a sick family member can use it exclusively.

Clothes are best washed in temperatures of at least 60 degrees. It is important to pay more attention to good hygiene in the kitchen and when preparing food. Anyone with acute diarrhea should also avoid preparing food for others.

Sick children should not be allowed to go to school until they have stopped having diarrhea for two days.

Depending on hygiene standards, when traveling to subtropical or tropical countries, it may be necessary to forgo raw, unpeeled fruits and vegetables and not drink tap water. Fish or meat must be well cooked.

Treatment for gastrointestinal infections

Anyone with diarrhea loses fluids and electrolytes. Therefore, the most important thing is to make up for this loss. In case of acute normal diarrhea, sweetened tea in combination with crackers is sufficient.

It is often recommended to eat stomach-friendly foods like rice, bananas, etc. Some abstain from coffee, fruit juices, lemonades, alcohol, and fatty foods so as not to irritate the gut.

Avoid dehydration

Normal acute diarrhea in adolescents and adults does not require special treatment. In young children and the elderly, as well as severe diarrhea, it makes sense to compensate for the loss of fluid and electrolytes with a pharmacy rehydration solution (also called electrolyte / glucose solutions).

These are powders to dissolve in water. They contain salts, minerals and glucose. As a substitute when traveling, you can also add the following ingredients to a liter of bottled or boiled water and mix:

  • Five tablespoons sugar
  • One and a half tablespoons of table salt
  • A glass of packaged orange juice

In addition to fluid intake and other treatments, foods or dietary supplements that contain probiotic (probiotic) microorganisms can help shorten the duration of diarrhea.

Medications and antibiotics

Also, depending on the duration and severity of symptoms, additional treatments may be considered:

Medicines such as loperamide or racecadotril calm the bowel and can reduce the frequency of going to the bathroom. Loperamide is not suitable for children under 12 years of age, and Racecadotril is especially for children.

Sometimes certain yeast tablets (perenterol) are recommended, which accelerate the excretion of pathogens and help restore the natural intestinal flora.

The intake of charcoal tablets, which are previously dissolved in water, may be good to relieve symptoms. However, there are no significant studies to adequately assess the benefits and harms of these treatment options.

Antibiotics are only suitable for a bacterial intestinal infection. They can’t do anything against viruses.

By Dr. Eric Jackson

Dr. Eric Jackson provides primary Internal Medicine care for men and women and treats patients with bone and mineral diseases, diabetes, heart conditions, and other chronic illnesses.He is a Washington University Bone Health Program physician and is a certified Bone Densitometrist. Dr. Avery is consistently recognized in "The Best Doctors in America" list.

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