What Is Dysentery?

Dysentery is an intestinal infection that you can get if you eat food that's been prepared by someone who's got the illness.

The disease can cause bloody diarrhea. There are two types. Amoebic dysentery comes from a parasite called Entamoeba histolytica. You're more likely to get this kind if you travel to a tropical location that has poor sanitation.

The second type, called bacillary dysentery, comes from bacteria called Shigella. Diarrhea from Shigella is also called shigellosis. It's the most common type of dysentery. About 500,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with it every year.

How You Get It

You might get this infection if the person who prepared your food is sick and didn't properly wash their hands. Or you can get dysentery if you touch something that has the parasite or bacteria on it, such as a toilet handle or sink knob. Swimming in contaminated water, such as lakes or pools, is another way you might catch dysentery.

You can sometimes carry the bug that causes dysentery for weeks or years without knowing it. You can still pass the infection to other people, even if you don't have symptoms.

Symptoms

Symptoms usually show up 1 to 3 days after you get infected. In some people, the symptoms take longer to appear. Others never get symptoms.

Each type of dysentery has slightly different symptoms.

Bacillary dysentery causes symptoms like:

Amoebic dysentery usually doesn't cause symptoms. If you do feel sick, you'll notice problems 2 to 4 weeks after you're infected, such as:

  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Belly cramps
  • Weight loss
  • Fever

Rarely, amoebic dysentery leads to more serious problems like liver abscess, which is a collection of pus in the liver. Symptoms include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Pain in the upper right part of the belly
  • Weight loss
  • Swollen liver

Diagnosis

Dysentery symptoms look like a lot of other intestinal illnesses, including a garden-variety stomach virus. A lab technician can look at a sample of your diarrhea under a microscope to confirm that you have this infection.

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How You Treat It

Most people with bacillary dysentery don't need treatment. The infection usually passes on its own within a week.

While you wait for the infection to clear, you can do a few things to help you feel better. Drink plenty of water or "rehydration" drinks, like sports drinks, to bring back the fluid you lost through diarrhea.

Medicine with bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) may ease symptoms like belly cramps and diarrhea. You can also take an over-the-counter pain reliever like acetaminophen to manage painful cramps.

Don't take an over-the-counter diarrhea medicine like loperamide (Imodium) unless your doctor recommends it. These medications can make dysentery worse.

A severe Shigella infection that doesn't clear up on its own in a few days may need treatment with antibiotics. In that case, see your doctor.

If you have amoebic dysentery with symptoms, you can take medicine to kill the parasites in your blood, intestines, and liver. You'll stay on these medications for about 10 days. Doctors treat amoebic dysentery that doesn't cause symptoms with drugs such as iodoquinol or diloxanide furoate.

Dysentery is very contagious. Stay home from work or school until you've been diarrhea-free for at least 48 hours to avoid passing the infection to others. Wash your hands often and don't prepare food for anyone else for at least 2 days after your symptoms clear up. Also avoid sex until you feel better.

Once the infection is gone, clean your house well to kill the germs. Wash your sheets, towels, and clothes in hot water. Disinfect toilet seats, flush handles, sink handles, doorknobs, and other places you often touch.

When to Get Medical Help

Most of the time you don't need prescription medicine to treat dysentery. The infection should clear on its own within a week.

Call your doctor if diarrhea, cramps, and other symptoms are severe, or if they don't get better within a week. Let your doctor know if you recently traveled to a country where dysentery is common.

How to Prevent Dysentery

If you visit a tropical or less developed country where dysentery spreads, follow these tips:

  • Drink and brush your teeth with bottled or canned water only, not tap water.
  • Order your drinks without ice.
  • Only eat raw fruits and vegetables that have a peel.
  • Cook any produce that you can't peel.
  • Don't eat food from street vendors.

When someone close to you has dysentery:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water or use hand sanitizer.
  • Don't share towels, cups, or other personal items with the person who has dysentery.
  • Wash your hands before you cook or eat.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on September 12, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: "Shigella - Shigellosis: Diagnosis and Treatment."

Centre for Health Protection: "Bacillary Dysentery."

Government of Western Australia Department of Health: "Shigella Infection and Dysentery."

Harvard Medical School: "Gastrointestinal Amebiasis."

Hastings Borough Council: "Dysentery Fact Sheet."

Medscape: "Amebiasis Medication."

New York State Department of Health: "Amebiasis (amebic dysentery)."

NHS: "Dysentery."

Southern Nevada Health District: "Amebiasis (amebic dysentery)."

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