What Is Fecal-Oral Transmission?
Fecal-oral transmission means spread of microbes (viruses, bacteria or parasites) from the human or animal stool to your mouth. Transmission of microbes from your own stool is called auto-infection. The feco-oral route of transmission is common and one of the main modes of spread for some of the most serious infectious diseases globally. Yet, it is easily prevented with good hygiene and proper sterilization practices.
Fecal particles are naturally laden with bacteria from the bowels, some of which can cause serious acute diseases if consumed – meaning that it enters the body through the mouth. Although the naturally occurring bacteria on its own can cause severe gastroenteritis, it is usually not life threatening if there is proper treatment. However, people with certain infectious diseases pass stool laden with these dangerous bacteria, viruses and parasites. It the exposure to these fecal particles, either directly or through contaminated food and water, is one of the major ways in which epidemics break out.
How Can you Get Infected by the Stool?
Stool can be transported to your mouth by:
- Hands, by shaking someone’s hands contaminated by stool, touching surfaces in public toilets, changing diapers, working in the garden, dealing with cattle or pets
- Toys, mostly in small children
- Fomites – various objects, including utensils, capable to carry microbes
- Food, usually raw fruits or vegetables, contaminated by stool-contaminated hands or house flies
- Drinking water, usually from lakes, contaminated by animal stool, swimming pools, contaminated by human feces, or even tap water in certain countries with low-hygiene habits
- Eating feces, in children, or in a mental disorder called coprophagia
Microbes, Commonly Transmitted by Fecal-Oral Route
Below, few examples of fecal-oral infections are listed.
- Hepatitis A and E virus
- Poliovirus, causing poliomyelitis
- Rotavirus, causing viral diarrhea in children, known as stomach flu
- Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella and other bacteria causing food poisoning, often causing traveler’s diarrhea
- Clostridium difficile, usually causing antibiotic associated diarrhea, an autoinfection by your own stool is possible
- Salmonella typhi causing typhoid fever
- Toxoplasma gondii
- Vibrio cholerae, a waterborne infection causing cholera
- Intestinal unicellular parasites: Entamoeba histolytica, Giardia, Cryptosporidium, Microsporidia
- Intestinal worms, like roundworms, tapeworms or pinworms
How to Prevent Fecal-Oral Infection?
- Wash your hands after using toilet, changing diapers, working in garden
- Do not change diapers at the same place where you prepare food
- Do not drink water from rivers, lakes and swimming pools
- Disinfect suspicious tap water.
Traveler’s are at the greatest risk and it is therefore important to be cautious and practice good hygiene while abroad. It is particularly risky when traveling to developing nations or countries with poor hygienic practices and enforcement by local health authorities. Apart from practicing the measures above, the simplest way that is often the most effective is never to eat or drink at establishments that are not known, trusted and reputable. Street food is therefore one of the major problems and reasons why travelers fall ill while abroad.