Viral, bacterial, or parasitic intestinal infections have different treatments that depend on their type and severity. There are usually two main goals of treatment. One is to eradicate the infection and the other is to prevent complications that may arise from dehydration. Sometimes addressing malnourishment is an important part of care, too.
Usually, a viral intestinal infection resolves on its own, but it can cause severe dehydration if patients are not able to get adequate fluids, especially if they are losing fluids through vomiting or diarrhea. Occasionally, antiemetic drugs or anti-diarrheal agents are used to reduce these symptoms, but many doctors don’t recommend them for an illness of short duration. They may be more likely to suggest medications if patients are at higher risk for dehydration due to very young or advanced age, pregnancy, or medical frailty.
What is ordinarily prescribed for a viral intestinal infection is bed rest and regular intake of fluids that have balanced electrolytes. Sometimes sports drinks suffice, but they often have higher sugar content that worsens diarrhea. Other electrolyte replacing fluids exist, and people can also make their own balanced salt/sugar solution, called oral replacement solution. If dehydration is a significant concern, physicians could also give intravenous fluids plus medications to stop diarrhea or vomiting. In most cases, though, people are able to recover at home from viral stomach illnesses.
A bacterial intestinal infection may require more intervention. Sometimes patients recover from these illnesses without intervention, and they may not even realize their infection was bacterial. Many minor bacterial infections are attributed to viruses. Other people get severely ill with exposure to bacteria, and certain infections caused by C. difficile, listeria or E. coli can be extremely dangerous.
When doctors suspect a bacterial intestinal infection, they usually analyze a patient’s stool sample to determine the bacterium that is creating illness. While waiting for these results, a broad-spectrum antibiotic might be prescribed. Once the infection is identified, doctors might recommend a new antibiotic that is more effective against the specific bacterium.
Just as with viral infections, doctors are concerned about preventing dehydration from bacterial stomach illnesses. It’s possible for some patients to be treated at home with rest, fluids, and antibiotics. Stopping vomiting or diarrhea is not always advised because these actions can help rid the body of some of the bacteria. On the other hand, hospitalization, drugs to stop symptoms, and intravenous fluids could be necessary for severely ill patients.
The bacteria type may also mean doctors must advise patients or caretakers about practices that can reduce disease spread. For example, some types of viral and bacterial infections readily spread via the fecal to oral route. Careful handwashing after using the toilet and when preparing food, and special handling of diapers or other soiled materials may help reduce the chances that others in the home will become ill.
Patients may have an intestinal infection that looks bacterial, but is actually parasitic or amoebic. This is another reason to do stool testing, as antibiotics don’t cure these illnesses, and patients require antiparasitic medications, instead. Parasite infections are likely to spread and necessitate education of caregivers or patients. Depending on the degree of illness, oral or intravenous fluid replacement, medications to stop symptoms and kill parasites, and rest are usually needed to help individuals recover.