The term infectious colitis sounds awful, and it can be. Infectious colitis is inflammation of the main part of the large intestine (colon) and can lead to sudden lower abdominal pain. In some cases, the pain can be severe.
While inflammation is a common medical term and may not seem all that serious, the reality is that when left untreated, it can lead to complications and has the potential to be deadly.
What causes infectious colitis?
Infectious colitis is not to be confused with other types of colitis, such as ulcerative colitis. Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease, but its causes are normally due to infections from bacteria, viruses, parasites, or fungus. The term colitis refers to the main symptom, which is diarrhea.
Infectious colitis is often linked with food poisoning, which is an infection of the stomach and rectum. The most common cause of a food poisoning type of infectious colitis is contaminated water, and it comes from a parasite called entamoeba histolytica. You can also experience sudden diarrhea after consuming food contaminated with bacteria. E-coli, salmonella, shigella, yersinia, or campylobacter are all bacterial intestinal infections.
In recent years, you have likely heard the term C. difficile, or C. diff. Over the last few years, some hospitals and nursing homes have experienced C. diff outbreaks. While the bacterium clostridium difficile is present in our colon and is part of our normal intestinal flora, when it is destroyed by antibiotics, it can overgrow, releasing toxins that lead to inflammation in the colon.
There are also situations where the cause of the infectious colitis is viral or fungal. Viral colitis is rare but can occur in people with low immunity—for instance, in those who are going through chemotherapy or fighting AIDS. Fungal colitis is much like a virus—it happens mostly in cases where a person has a compromised immune system.
Symptoms of infectious colitis
Infectious colitis symptoms may vary slightly depending on the cause, but generally, an attack comes with the following:
- Diarrhea (three or more times per day)
- Bloody loose stools
- Lower abdominal pain and cramps
- Tenesmus (constant urgency to have bowel movement)
- Rectum pain during bowel movement
- Stomach bloating
- Low-grade fever (less than 101.5F)
- Nausea or vomiting
- Headache or body aches
- Weight loss
While nausea and vomiting are less common than some of the other symptoms, it can happen to people who have sensitive digestive systems to begin with. Those who experience frequent watery stools and vomiting find that they get dehydrated. In these situations, it doesn’t take long to notice weight loss and there is often need for hospitalization so that fluids can be administered through intravenous.
Some of the symptoms mentioned here may sound like a simple flu bug—something many people tend to fluff off. If you experience symptoms such as persistent pain and bloating, it is important to see a doctor to get a proper diagnosis.
Diagnosing and treating infectious colitis
A history of bloody diarrhea with urgency, especially several hours after a meal, is usually a quick diagnosis of infectious colitis. In many cases, some investigation is required. A stool culture can detect bacteria, something called an O&P test can detect parasites in stool, and blood tests can determine if a person has elevated white cells in the body, which is an indication of inflammation. While a simple blood test can’t confirm infection of the colon, doctors do know that a special type of white blood cell, called eosinophil, as well as IgE antibodies, are high in parasitic infection.
Infectious colitis treatment often focuses on antimicrobial drugs, which are directed at the toxin, which is causing the symptoms. Antimicrobial medications include antibiotics, antifungals, and antivirals. Painkillers, as well as drugs to lower a high fever, may also be suggested in cases where the infection is severe. Addressing dehydration with a lot of fluids is important, but generally, those who suffer from infectious colitis are told to pay close attention to both fluid intake and salt due to the risk of loss during illness. There are some cases where iron supplements may be needed due to the fact that there has been severe or prolonged bleeding.
Preventing infectious colitis
Now that you know how infectious colitis occurs, you can consider how to prevent it. Here are a few steps you can take to avoid the uncomfortable symptoms associated with this condition:
- Cleaning hands—wash your hands in warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after you handle food, after using the bathroom, changing diapers, and touching animals.
- General cleaning—rinse fruit and vegetables thoroughly before consuming, clean cutting boards, knives, counter-tops, and other areas where you prepare food. Also, remember to wash dishtowels, sponges, and other cleaning items in hot water at least once a week.
- Cooking—cook eggs until yolks are firm. Use a meat thermometer to make sure all bacteria have been killed.
- Food storage—refrigerate or freeze fruits, vegetables, and other cooked foods properly.
- Drinking water—make sure the water you are drinking is safe. Drinking bottled water when travelling is a good idea.
In the majority of cases, infectious colitis can be resolved quickly and easily. It’s important to keep in mind that if you can’t get your symptoms under control and are experiencing sudden weight loss, difficulty urinating, weakness, dizziness, confusion or irregular breathing, you need to seek immediate medical attention. When infectious colitis is not treated properly it can lead to rapid heart rate and severe rectal bleeding, which can make a person anemic.