What causes gut infections, and how to avoid them

Gut infections are the top cause of acute diarrhea, and can be life-threatening if severe.

  • By Dr. Christine Bowen Special to The Herald
  • Wednesday, June 22, 2022 1:30am
  • Life

By Dr. Christine Bowen / Special to The Herald

Do you think that your digestive problems started shortly after a gut infection? This is very probable and very common.

Have you ever found yourself sitting on the toilet while also vomiting? This is an AWFUL feeling, and is most often due to digestive tract infections caused by viruses, bacteria or parasites. This is referred to as Acute Infectious Gastroenteritis, or IGE for short. The symptoms are typically vomiting, diarrhea, and in severe cases, dehydration. These infections usually resolve on their own and don’t typically require additional testing or treatment.

Today, we are going to explore these all-too-common infections and discuss how having had a gut infection, even 20 years ago, could be bothering your gut today. We are going to explore the causes of acute gut infections and how to prevent them when possible. Gut infections are the top cause of acute diarrhea, and can be life-threatening if severe. Seek help if it isn’t resolving on its own within a day or two, or if your symptoms are very severe.

Risk factors of getting digestive tract infections

• Foodborne illness, AKA “food poisoning;” can be due to viral or bacterial causes. Affects 15% of Americans each year. Most commonly acquired while traveling, AKA “ traveler’s diarrhea”

• Fecal-oral route of infection means that our mouth comes into contact with feces-contaminated food or water.

• Contact with items that infected people have contacted.

• Young children are more susceptible.

• Close contact with other people, like on a cruise ship or in dormitories

• Having had previous gut infections makes it even more likely that you will get reinfected!

Types of digestive infections

• Bacterial infections account for 19-20% of acute infectious gastroenteritis. Food-borne illness is typically caused by either Campylobacter or certain types of E. Coli.

• Viral infections cause 50-70% of all digestive infections. The most common viruses are Rotavirus and Norovirus (AKA Norwalk virus, very common on cruises). Norwalk virus is VERY infectious, with even very small amounts causing infections.

• Parasites cause 10-15% of all gut infections and have a higher risk of creating post-infectious complications in comparison to bacterial and viral infections.

• Protozoans Giardia (aka Backpacker’s Diarrhea), and Cryptosporidium (from contaminated water), among other protozoans.

• Amoeba are not bacteria or parasites; they are a different type of single-celled organism. You may have heard the term “amoebic dysentery” which refers to this type of infection.

• Worms like hookworms, whipworms, and roundworms can all cause gut infections.

Complications from intestinal infections

• Post-Infectious Irritable Bowel Syndrome (PI-IBS): This condition is caused by damage to the small intestine caused by gut infections. The symptoms are the same as IBS — gas, bloating, bowel changes and abdominal pain. Rates of IBS are four times higher in people who have had infectious gastroenteritis (IGE).

• Small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO): This causes very uncomfortable bloating, bowel changes, gut discomfort and sometimes weight changes or reflux.

• Post infectious dyspepsia: 9% of people who have had IGE may experience new-onset heartburn or indigestion. This is also called Functional Dyspepsia (FD).

• Autoimmune disease: Developing ulcerative colitis, or reactive arthritis in the months after the infection

• Aortic aneurysm: A severe potential side effect of IGE is a balloon-like bulge of the large blood vessel in our abdomen. This can be life-threatening.

Management of IGE

Most cases of gut infections can be managed at home.

• Stay hydrated. Water with electrolytes and minerals in it is preferable. This can either be a homemade electrolyte recipe or store-bought. One simple version is to combine 360 milliliters of unsweetened orange juice, 600 milliliters of cooled, previously boiled water, and ½ teaspoon of salt.

• Get plenty of rest and STAY HOME to help avoid the spread of the illness and prevent community outbreaks.

• Eat small amounts of nutritious foods as tolerated. Avoid foods that are spicy, sugary, or fatty

• Get medical help if symptoms are severe.

There are no medications available to treat viral gastroenteritis. Instead, treatment focuses on symptom management and preventing complications.

Prevention of gut infections

While traveling: Be careful about what you eat and drink when traveling. Drink bottled water and beverages if possible – and make sure they are sealed before you open them – and only consume local water after boiling it for three minutes. Brush your teeth with bottled water and keep your mouth closed while showering. Avoid raw fruits and vegetables unless they have a skin you can peel (bananas, citrus, avocado, etc.). Stick to well-cooked foods while eating out, and don’t consume any ice or undercooked meat or fish.

At home:

• Safe food handling: Proper cooking times for meat, cleaning the outside of eggshells.

• Wash your hands with soap and water before and after you use the bathroom or handle high-risk foods like raw meat.

• Avoid contact with infected individuals.

• Don’t bring ill children to school or daycare.

When is it an emergency?

What are the warning signs to get medical attention? Intense and prolonged abdominal pain, severe or prolonged vomiting, extreme diarrhea that could lead to dehydration, and blood in the stool. If symptoms occur and leave quickly with no lasting effects, you may be able to just hydrate and ensure adequate electrolyte balance but if anything persists or is severe in nature, then please seek medical attention without delay.

Dr. Christine Bowen of Everett is a licensed naturopathic doctor, keynote speaker and has been published in the Townsend Letter. In practice since 2005, Bowen specializes in holistic approaches for digestive health and autoimmunity. Go to www.bothellnaturalhealth.com for more information. Connect with her via Facebook drchristinebowen or Instagram @drchristinebowen.

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