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What Is a Bacterial Bowel Infection?

A Salmonella bacterium, a common cause of bowel infection.
If hospitalized, a patient may receive intravenous fluids and antibiotics to treat a bacterial bowel infection.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 15 August 2014
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A bacterial bowel infection is disease occurring in the intestinal tract caused by the colonization of harmful bacteria. Many such infections can resolve on their own with supportive care. Treatment may be required with aggressive or resistant infections to prevent complications. Such infections are especially common in regions with poor sanitation where people may be exposed to contaminated food and water. Other organisms, like viruses, can also settle in the gut and may cause similar symptoms, which can be an issue if the patient requires treatment.

Common culprits behind a bacterial bowel infection include Shigella, Salmonella, Escherichia coli, and Salmonella. These bacteria can enter food and water supplies in a variety of ways. Once they reach the bowel, they can displace the native bacteria that assist with digestion. Patients can experience symptoms like nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. The bacterial bowel infection may clear after several days, unless the patient has a compromised immune system, or the bacteria are unusually aggressive.

The most frequent complication of such infections is dehydration. Patients may lose water through vomiting and diarrhea, and could have trouble drinking enough fluid to make up for the loss. It is important for a patient with a bacterial bowel infection to get plenty of fluids, including oral rehydration solutions if the patient has been experiencing symptoms for several days. There is also a risk of more serious complications like septicemia, where bacteria enter the bloodstream and cause systemic infections.

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Oral antibiotics can be used for an infection that does not resolve on its own. These medications can disrupt the normal gut bacteria, in which case the patient might notice continuing diarrhea and discomfort while on the drugs. Some doctors may advise taking probiotics or eating yogurt with live cultures to rebuild the population of beneficial bacteria in the intestines and offset these symptoms. It is important to complete the course of medication, unless a severe allergic reaction develops.

In the case of a severe bacterial bowel infection, the patient could require hospitalization. This may occur if extreme dehydration develops or the patient appears to have signs of septicemia. In the hospital, the patient can receive intravenous fluids and antibiotics. Care can involve monitoring to identify and treat complications as they develop. The patient may need to be placed in isolation if there are concerns that the infection involves drug-resistant bacteria that could post a risk to the health of other patients in the facility.

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