Diarrhea is not always contagious, especially if it’s chronic diarrhea, which is often a symptom of digestive disorders like Crohn’s disease and celiac disease.1 However, if the illness is caused by harmful pathogenic microorganisms, it may be transmitted from one person to another. This is called acute infectious diarrhea.
Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself and your family from this potentially serious communicable disease.2 But first, you need to know its causes and how it is transmitted.
What Causes Infectious Diarrhea?
Generally, this type of diarrhea is caused by bacterial, viral and parasitic infections. The usual culprits include:3
• E. coli — These bacteria are usually spread through contaminated food or water, including undercooked meats or infected produce. E. coli can also be found in swimming pools and petting zoos, both of which are common sources for bacterial infections that can cause diarrhea in children.
• Salmonella enteritidis — Infections caused by this species of bacteria are among the major causes of food poisoning today. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), non-typhoidal salmonella causes about 1.2 million illnesses and 450 deaths every year in the U.S.4 These infections usually spread through contaminated raw or undercooked eggs and chicken.
• Shigella — Shigellosis is an intestinal disease that usually causes bloody diarrhea. The Mayo Clinic website states that this infection can be transmitted through direct contact with the bacteria from stool. One example is when you don’t wash your hands well enough after changing an infected person’s diaper. Take note that some people who are infected may have no symptoms, but they remain infectious.5 Shigella bacteria can also spread through contaminated food or water.6
• Giardia — Typically causing watery diarrhea, infection with this parasite is one of the most common causes of waterborne disease in the U.S. Giardia parasites are generally found in backcountry streams and lakes, but they can also lurk in municipal water supplies, wells and swimming pools. This type of infection can also spread through person-to-person contact and infected food or water.7
• Rotavirus — This is a common cause of viral diarrhea in infants and children, according to the CDC.8 Rotavirus is present in the stool of an infected person several days before symptoms begin, and up to 10 days after symptoms stop. The virus infects others through hand-to-mouth contact during this time, and can spread to anything an infected person touches, such as food, toys and utensils. It is highly contagious because the virus can stay on surfaces and remain infectious for weeks.9
It is also noteworthy that the rotavirus vaccine, given orally to infants, can sometimes cause viral gastroenteritis symptoms such as diarrhea. Additionally, the virus may “shed” up to 51 days in their stool even if they don’t have diarrhea,10 so if you have a baby who is recently vaccinated for rotavirus, be sure to thoroughly wash your hands after changing their diaper. Also, remember to properly clean the changing table afterward, and dispose of the diaper in a closed container.
How You Can Avoid Falling Victim to This Infectious Illness
Protecting yourself and your family from this type of diarrhea is simple. Here are some prevention tips from Everyday Health:11
Learn how to wash your hands properly and teach your family members as well. Make it a rule at home to wash hands before eating, after using the bathroom and after handling pets or pet waste.
Be careful when traveling to other countries — drink clean water and eat food from trusted sources only.
Separate uncooked meats from other foods.
Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before consumption.
Disinfect kitchen items, toys and other household items that can spread infection.
Try using a natural all-purpose disinfectant like 3 percent hydrogen peroxide and vinegar. Just put each liquid into a separate spray bottle, then spray the surface with one, followed by the other.
Store perishable food properly in the refrigerator or freezer.
People who are sick with diarrhea should not handle food.
Add probiotic foods, which can help maintain proper digestive system function, to your family’s healthy diet. You can take a high-quality probiotic supplement as well.
Infectious diarrhea is highly preventable but, sadly, it remains to be the most common cause of diarrhea worldwide, and is one of the leading causes of death in childhood.12,13 Remember these tips if you want to protect yourself and your family from this contagious illness.