What Causes Acute Gastroenteritis?

Acute gastroenteritis, also commonly called food poisoning, occurs when bacteria or viruses enter the stomach and the intestines, causing inflammation. Most acute gastroenteritis causes stem from food contamination, but exposure to certain types of bacteria and viruses can also cause sickness. These culprits lead to mild to severe symptoms that usually last no longer than 48 hours, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Consumption or exposure to some foods in certain settings can cause acute bacterial gastroenteritis in one or more people. The risk of food poisoning increases if the same people ate the same contaminated food at events such as picnics, or in large places such as a restaurant or cafeteria. Contact with infected animals during poultry or meat processing and improper food handling at restaurants and grocery stores can also cause symptoms of acute gastroenteritis. Well water and untreated tap water also cause illness because they may contain traces of animal or human waste.

Additional factors may contribute to gastroenteritis. Raw oysters or other seafood, raw vegetables, and fruits, as well as eggs may sicken people if they are not cleaned, prepared, or cooked thoroughly. Dairy- or mayonnaise-based dishes like potato salad can trigger bacterial exposure if kept outside of the refrigerator for prolonged periods of time. Anyone who prepares food without proper hand washing risks spreading the infection to others. In addition to food and water, the infection also spreads through dirty and shared items such as utensils, cooking tools, or cutting boards.


Different types of bacteria and viruses cause acute gastroenteritis when they enter food or surfaces. Some bacterial gastroenteritis causes include salmonella, E. coli, and staphylococcus. Germs that cause viral gastroenterities include the adenovirus, rotovirus, and the norovirus, which often spreads in confined spaces such as cruise ship cabins.

Both bacterial and viral acute gastroenteritis produce most of the same symptoms in children and adults. Exposure to contaminated food and drink by mouth often leads to diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Symptoms may also include abdominal cramps or pain, and loss of appetite. Treatment of gastroenteritis usually involves avoiding solid food, and drinking water, clear broth, as well as electrolytes to prevent dehydration. Severe cases of gastroenteritis warrant a trip to the hospital to treat complications such as dehydration, a fever higher than 100° Fahrenheit (37° Celsius), as well as symptoms that don't improve within 48 hours.

Safe food and beverage handling, as well as proper sanitation practices, help to prevent acute gastroenteritis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites regular handwashing, including before and after touching food, as one way to prevent infection. Washing dirty clothes and cleaning household and kitchen surfaces with chlorine bleach-based cleaners also help to prevent exposure to gastroenteritis.


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