Dysentery: What It Is, Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

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Dysentery is no joke, with debilitating diarrhea as its hallmark symptom.

Every year, over 165 million cases of dysentery and just over 1 million deaths are reported worldwide, claims a study published recently in the journal Germs. Nearly 99% of these cases happen in developing countries.

Dysentery is a nasty gastrointestinal infection that is usually triggered by parasites or bacteria. In this article, experts will discuss what dysentery is, explore its causes, outline the two main types (amoebic and bacillary), uncover its symptoms, and describe treatments.

What is dysentery?

Dysentery is a gastrointestinal disease that leads to intense diarrhea that can have blood or mucus in it. Anyone can get it. But it's more common in tropical areas where clean water is hard to come by.

The Cleveland Clinic expresses the importance of water sanitation, which makes drinking water safe. That said, always wash your hands after using the bathroom. Neglecting this can spread the germs that cause dysentery to food, water and surfaces.

Dysentery causes

How do you get dysentery? It's all about the spread of parasites and bacteria. Dysentery-causing infections are highly contagious and usually pass from one person to another when poop (fecal matter) from an infected person finds its way into someone else's mouth.

The Cleveland Clinic explains that this can happen in various ways, including:

  • Unsanitary food prep: When someone handles food without washing their hands or practicing good hygiene, they can transfer the germs that cause dysentery to the food.
  • Tainted water: Drinking water that's contaminated with these nasty bugs is another way to catch dysentery.
  • Risk in intimacy: Even sexual contact, especially involving the anus, can transmit the infection.

Dysentery types

Dysentery isn't a one-size-fits-all illness. According to the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, here are the two main types:

  • Bacillary dysentery (shigellosis): This is the more common type and is triggered by Shigella bacteria. These bacteria can trigger a bout of unpleasant symptoms.
  • Amoebic dysentery (amoebiasis): Amoebic dysentery is caused by a single-celled parasite, Entamoeba histolytica. This parasite is typically found in tropical regions, so you might pick it up while traveling abroad.

Dysentery symptoms

Dysentery symptoms can differ depending on which type of dysentery you're dealing with. However, many with amoebic dysentery may not even notice they have it. If symptoms do appear, they can include:

  • Diarrhea
  • High fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Upset stomach

In some rare instances, the amoeba can migrate to other parts of your body, potentially causing an abscess.

Bacillary dysentery, on the other hand, tends to bring about:

  • Diarrhea with blood or mucus
  • High fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Painful stomach cramps

Severe dysentery can lead to complications such as extreme inflammation, dilation of the large intestine and acute kidney disease.

Dysentery treatment

“If one gets dysentery, the treatment is a medicine to treat the bacterium or parasite that is causing it,” says Dr. William Petri, an infectious diseases specialist with the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville.

Treating dysentery hinges on the type you have. For amoebic dysentery, the priority is to kick out that unwanted parasite. Your health care provider typically prescribes metronidazole (Flagyl), a medication tailored for tackling parasitic infections. Additionally, they may suggest antibiotics and over-the-counter nausea relievers.

On the other hand, if you've got bacillary dysentery, many people start feeling better within a few days to a week without treatment. But if your symptoms demand medical attention, your treatment may include antibiotics and intravenous (IV) fluids. In rare instances, a blood transfusion might be necessary.

When it comes to young children with dysentery, a report by the Rehydration Project indicates that routine treatment for amoebiasis isn't recommended. Treatment is only considered when bloody stools persist after using antibiotics effective against Shigella. Metronidazole is the preferred treatment for amoebic dysentery, with improvements usually noticeable within two to three days of starting treatment.

Living with dysentery

Dysentery, now more commonly referred to as Shigellosis, is something you can overcome. According to Mount Sinai, the infection can often be mild and may resolve on its own.

Prevention is equally important. “The best way to prevent dysentery is by practicing good hygiene, as these infections are spread by fecally contaminated food or water,” Petri stressed.

You can protect yourself by correctly handling, storing and preparing food and maintaining good personal hygiene. Hand washing, in particular, is the most effective way to prevent dysentery.


William Petri, MD, infectious diseases specialist, University of Virginia School of Medicine

Germs: Incidence Rates of Dysentery Among Humans in Lemghaier Province, Algeria

Cleveland Clinic: Dysentery

National Health Service: Dysentery

Rehydration Project: Dysentery, Persistent Diarrhoea, and Diarrhoea Associated with Other Illnesses

Mount Sinai: Shigellosis

Cleveland Clinic: Shigella Infection (Shigellosis)

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