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Bacterial & Viral Infections


Erin knew she had a touchy digestive system, and sometimes she got diarrhea when foods disagreed with her. But this time she felt worse than she ever had before. Her stomach cramps and diarrhea had come on suddenly, and were severe. She felt nauseated, too, and couldn’t even think about eating dinner. Later than night, she started running a fever.

But Erin got really scared the next day, when she noticed blood in her bowel movements. She called her mom at work because she was worried something was really wrong. After a trip to the doctor, Erin found out she had an infection called shigellosis.

What Is Shigellosis?

Shigellosis (pronounced: shih-guh-LOW-sus) is an intestinal infection caused by Shigella (pronounced: shih-GEL-uh) bacteria. The bacteria produce toxins that can attack the lining of the large intestine, causing swelling, ulcers on the intestinal wall, and bloody diarrhea. Symptoms can range from just watery diarrhea to bloody diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain.

Shigella bacteria can contaminate food and water supplies, especially in areas where the sanitation is not adequate. However, most of the time the bacteria are spread when a person comes into contact with another person’s stool (poop). That’s one of the reasons why it’s important to wash your hands after using the restroom. It takes as few as 10 of these bacteria to cause an infection. That means that Shigella bacteria can spread easily within families, schools, child-care centers, nursing homes, and other institutions.

Shigellosis can affect people of any age, including teens. It’s especially common in children ages 2 to 3 years old because they’re often not toilet trained yet or they don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom.

What Are Its Signs and Symptoms?

Everyone gets diarrhea once in a while. So how can you tell if what you have is shigellosis or something else?

The severity of the diarrhea sets shigellosis apart from regular diarrhea. When someone has shigellosis, the first bowel movement is often large and watery. Later bowel movements may be smaller, but the diarrhea may have blood and mucus in it.

Other symptoms of shigellosis include:

  • abdominal cramps
  • high fever
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea and vomiting
  • painful bowel movements

In very severe cases of shigellosis, a person may have convulsions (seizures), a stiff neck, a headache, extreme tiredness, and confusion. Shigellosis can also lead to dehydration and in rare cases, other complications, like kidney failure.

How Is Shigellosis Diagnosed and Treated?

If you have severe diarrhea, especially if you are bleeding from your anus or have blood in your bowel movements, ask your parent to call your doctor right away. The doctor may take a sample of your stool to see if it contains Shigella bacteria. Blood tests and other tests may also be needed to look for other possible causes of the symptoms, especially if you have a large amount of blood in your stool.

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor will suggest fluids and may prescribe antibiotics to treat shigellosis. Antibiotics can help you recover faster and prevent the bacteria from spreading to other people. Most doctors suggest that people avoid using any antidiarrheal medications because they can make the infection worse.

How Long Does It Last?

Once a person gets infected with the Shigella bacteria, it usually takes anywhere from 12 hours to several days for the symptoms to appear. Most cases get better within 1 week even without use of antibiotics.

If someone becomes very dehydrated or has serious rectal bleeding, he or she may need to be admitted to the hospital for intravenous fluids and to control bleeding.

The Shigella bacteria live in the intestine the whole time a person is sick and they remain there for a few weeks after symptoms disappear. This means that people with shigellosis can be contagious (meaning they can spread the infection) even when they start to feel better. A person can become infected if he or she comes into contact with anything contaminated by stool from an infected person. This includes clothes, items around the house, surfaces of sinks and counters, and even food prepared by the infected person (if that person didn’t wash his or her hands properly). The disease can also spread in water supplies in areas with poor sanitation.

What Can I Do to Help Myself Feel Better?

People who have shigellosis need to drink plenty of liquids to replace fluids lost from diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. Depending on how much fluid you’re losing, your doctor may suggest changes to your diet until the diarrhea goes away. You may need to be on a liquid diet for a day or so until your stomach can handle solid foods. Your doctor may suggest you use special drinks that replace body fluids quickly or just drink more liquids. Drinking enough fluids is very important because it’s easy to become dehydrated when you have shigellosis.

Be sure to check with your doctor before taking any nonprescription medicines to relieve your diarrhea. These medicines might actually make your case of shigellosis worse because slowing down the diarrhea keeps the bacteria and their toxins in your body longer!

As you recover from shigellosis, your bowel movements will slowly return to normal. Most people get better without any long-lasting problems.

Can I Prevent Shigellosis?

There is no vaccine or surefire way to prevent shigellosis. The most important thing you can do to prevent shigellosis is to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after you use the bathroom and before you eat or prepare food. Remind everyone else in your family to do the same.

If you’re caring for anyone who has shigellosis (like changing the diaper of a younger sibling or even a child you’re babysitting), be sure to wash your hands carefully before touching anyone else or handling food. After someone with shigellosis uses a toilet, it should be cleaned and disinfected before anyone else uses it. By following these simple steps, you can help keep yourself and everyone in your family healthy.

Reviewed by: Nicole A. Green, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014