What is a bowel infection?
Bowel infections are caused by microorganisms (‘bugs’, or germs) that have found their way into your gut, which is part of your digestive system.
An infection of the bowel is sometimes called a gastrointestinal infection, or gastroenteritis.
People commonly get infected by:
- eating or drinking contaminated water or food (often called food poisoning)
- coming into contact with infected people, or contaminated objects such as cutlery, taps, toys or nappies
Bowel infections are common in Australia, but people also frequently get infected when travelling overseas. Infections of the bowel can affect anyone at any time. They can cause a lot of discomfort and inconvenience and can sometimes lead to more serious problems.
What are the symptoms of bowel infection?
Some common symptoms of bowel infection include:
Some people also get blood in their stools (poo), including in cases of an infection known as dysentery. Blood in stools can be caused bacteria or parasites, but it may be something more serious and you should always see a doctor if you have this symptom.
When should I see my doctor?
Make an appointment to see a doctor if you have:
- severe symptoms
- a high temperature (fever)
- blood or mucus in your stools
- diarrhoea that lasts longer than 2 or 3 days
- signs of dehydration, such as excessive thirst or not passing much urine
If your baby is under 3 months old and has diarrhoea, see a doctor right away.
Children should go to the emergency department if:
- they are showing signs of dehydration (not passing urine, pale, sunken eyes, cold hands or feet or is very cranky)
- they can't keep fluids down
- they have very bad stomach pain
- they are unwell, including being less responsive, not feeding well or feverish
Toddlers and young children should see a doctor if:
- they have diarrhoea that doesn't go away
- their is blood in their poo
- they are losing weight
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What are the most common causes of bowel infections?
Bowel infections caused by viruses include:
- Rotavirus: common in young children; spreads easily through contact with contaminated vomit or faeces (poo).
- Norovirus: highly contagious and spreads easily in places like childcare centres, nursing homes and cruise ships.
Bowel infections caused by bacteria include:
- Campylobacter: often linked with eating contaminated chicken; people most at risk are the young, the elderly, travellers and people who are malnourished.
- Salmonella: usually spread via contaminated meat, poultry or eggs.
- Shigella: most common in travellers to developing countries.
Bowel infections caused by parasites include:
- Giardia: spread in the faeces of infected people and animals; most common in young children, hikers, and travellers.
- Cryptosporidiosis: spread by contaminated food or water.
- Amoebiasis: mostly affects young adults; usually spread via contaminated water or food.
If you often get bowel symptoms such as diarrhoea, it could be a sign that you have an underlying condition such as diverticulitis, Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome or ulcerative colitis. You should see your doctor for advice.
How are bowel infections diagnosed?
To diagnose the cause of your symptoms, your doctor may ask some questions and examine you. They might do some tests, such as:
- faecal testing (taking a stool sample)
- blood tests
- an endoscopy (such as colonoscopy) to look inside your gastrointestinal tract
In some cases, you might be referred to an infectious diseases service.
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How are bowel infections treated?
Most bowel infections go away after a few days. But it’s important that you drink plenty of fluids, including water and oral rehydration drinks, available from a pharmacist, to avoid dehydration.
Diarrhoea causes a lot of fluids to be lost from the body, so take special care of vulnerable people like the very young, the very old and those in poor health.
Some people need antibiotics for bowel infections caused by parasites and bacteria. If your symptoms persist, see a doctor.
Can bowel infections be prevented?
Many bowel infections can be prevented by taking care with what you eat and drink, and by following good hygiene practices.
- Cook foods such as meat and eggs thoroughly.
- Wash your hands regularly, especially before touching food.
- When travelling to developing nations, only use bottled water for drinking and teeth cleaning, and avoid ice and raw foods.
- Avoid close contact with people who have a bowel infection
Resources and support
If you need to know more about bowel infections, or to get advice on what to do next, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours, 7 days a week (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).
Health Translations has several translated factsheets on conditions related to diarrhoea.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: February 2020