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Infections of the bowel

4-minute read

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 is a bowel infection?

If you have a bowel infection, it means that disease-causing microorganisms (‘bugs’ or germs) 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 it’s also common to get one when travelling overseas.

Common types of bowel infection

Many different types of organism can cause bowel infections. Some of the more common ones found in Australia are listed below.

Bowel infections caused by viruses include:

  • Rotavirus - common in young children; spreads easily through contact with contaminated vomit or faeces
  • Norovirus - highly contagious and spreads easily in places like child care 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 like 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.

Symptoms of bowel infection

The symptoms of a bowel infection can vary depending on the cause. Some common symptoms include:

Some people also get blood in their stools, known as dysentery, which can be caused by some bacteria and parasites.

You should 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.

Babies should see a doctor urgently if:

  • they have passed 6 or more diarrhoea stools in 24 hours
  • they have vomited 3 or more times in 24 hours
  • they are unwell - less responsive, not feeding well, feverish or not passing much urine
  • vomiting has lasted more than a day.

Toddlers and young children should see a doctor if:

  • they have diarrhoea and vomiting at the same time
  • they have diarrhoea that's particularly watery, has blood in it or lasts for longer than 2 or 3 days
  • they have severe or continuous stomach ache.

Diagnosis of bowel infection

To diagnose the cause of your symptoms, your doctor may ask some questions and examine you. They might also do some tests, such as:

  • faecal testing (stool sample)
  • blood tests
  • endoscopy (such as colonoscopy) to look inside your gastrointestinal tract.

In some cases, you might be referred to an infectious diseases service.

Treatment of bowel infections

Most bowel infections clear up after a few days. However, 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.

Prevention of bowel infections

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.

Last reviewed: December 2017

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