Acute hemorrhagic gastroenteritis is characterized by the sudden onset of bloody diarrhea and other gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, like abdominal pain and nausea.

In humans, acute hemorrhagic gastroenteritis is most associated with Escherichia coli (E. coli) infection. Other microorganisms that infect your gut and some noninfectious conditions may also cause acute hemorrhagic gastroenteritis.

The name can be broken into several parts:

  • “Acute” means it starts suddenly.
  • “Hemorrhagic” means it causes bleeding.
  • “Gastroenteritis” is inflammation of your stomach and intestines.

Older adults and young children are at the highest risk of developing severe complications, like kidney damage. Acute hemorrhagic gastroenteritis can also cause life threatening complications in animals like dogs, cats, and livestock.

Read on to learn more about acute hemorrhagic gastroenteritis in humans.

How common is acute hemorrhagic gastroenteritis in humans?

Acute hemorrhagic gastroenteritis is commonly associated with E. coli infection. Roughly 265,000 cases of E. coli-related illness and 100 deaths are reported annually in the United States.

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Acute hemorrhagic gastroenteritis is commonly associated with bacterial infections, especially E. coli. This bacterium is present in the feces of animals like:

  • goats
  • sheep
  • cows

Some E. coli bacteria produce a compound called Shiga toxin. These bacteria are called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC). STEC can cause significant damage to the lining of your intestines, which can lead to bloody diarrhea and other severe GI symptoms.

In 2019, STEC affected about 1 in 19,230 people in the United States.

How does E. coli transmit?

You can get E. coli if you come into contact with infected food or water.

Most outbreaks in the United States are associated with:

  • undercooked ground beef
  • unpasteurized milk
  • unpasteurized juice
  • leafy greens

Other causes of hemorrhagic gastroenteritis in humans

Other potential causes of bloody stool and gastroenteritis include:

The defining symptom of hemorrhagic gastroenteritis is bloody diarrhea that starts suddenly. You may experience other symptoms as well, like:

About 10% of people who develop a STEC infection develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). HUS is a rare and potentially life threatening autoimmune reaction that leads to:

  • damage to your kidneys
  • destruction of red blood cells
  • low blood platelets

Experts estimate that the mortality rate of HUS is around 3% in the United States. As many as 25% of people with HUS develop neurological complications, and as many as half have permanent kidney damage, although it’s usually mild.

Young children and older adults are at the highest risk of dying or developing severe complications from HUS.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends contacting a doctor if you have food poisoning and:

  • severe symptoms
  • diarrhea that lasts longer than 3 days
  • a fever over 102°F (39°C)
  • vomiting that prevents you from consuming liquids
  • symptoms of dehydration, like not urinating much

The CDC also recommends contacting a doctor if you’re pregnant and have a fever or other flu-like symptoms.

Tests that a doctor may use to help diagnose E. coli or other GI infections include:

  • a review of your personal and family medical history
  • a check of your symptoms
  • a physical exam
  • blood tests
  • stool tests

Treatment for gastroenteritis depends on the underlying cause. Supportive treatment options include:

  • staying hydrated
  • taking antidiarrhea medications
  • getting plenty of rest
  • minimizing solid food intake and slowly reintroducing solid foods as you’re able
  • avoiding or lowering caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine intake

Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics for bacterial infections, but they don’t usually recommend these for E. coli due to a risk of antibiotic resistance and potential side effects.

People with STEC or other severe infections should be hospitalized. Doctors may administer fluids through an IV line to help you stay hydrated.

You can prevent E. coli infection by:

  • frequently washing your hands, especially:
    • after using the bathroom
    • after changing diapers
    • before handling food
    • after touching animals
  • minimizing foods that need to be cooled in a fridge or freezer
  • cooking food thoroughly, especially raw meat
  • washing all surfaces after they come into contact with raw meat
  • washing fruits and vegetables

Here are some frequently asked questions that people have about hemorrhagic gastroenteritis.

What’s the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in humans?

The Shiga toxin-producing O157:H7 strain of E. coli is responsible for the most outbreaks of bloody diarrhea worldwide.

Can acute hemorrhagic gastroenteritis be cured?

Most people recover within 10 days of E. coli infection, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

That said, a small percentage of people develop HUS, which can lead to acute kidney failure and other serious complications. Young children and older adults are at the highest risk.

What’s the survival rate for acute hemorrhagic gastroenteritis?

Most people with an E. coli infection recover without serious complications.

However, the WHO estimates that the mortality rate for people who develop called HUS is around 3–5%, with children and older adults at the highest risk.

Acute hemorrhagic gastroenteritis is often associated with E. coli infection. It’s characterized by bloody stools, abdominal pain, and other GI symptoms.

A specific type of E. coli called STEC is responsible for most bloody diarrhea outbreaks worldwide. It’s important to contact a doctor if you develop food poisoning with bloody diarrhea or other severe symptoms.