Dysentery is an inflammation of the intestines that causes severe, painful diarrhea. The bacterial form of dysentery, shigellosis, is caused by Shigella bacteria (shigellosis is the most common cause of severe diarrhea in the United States). Amebiasis, which is sometimes called amebic dysentery, is much less common and is caused by the one-celled Entamoeba histolytica parasite.
Dysentery Infection Information
Both shigellosis and amebiasis are marked by severe, sometimes bloody, diarrhea; fever; and stomach cramps. According to the CDC, about 18,000 cases of shigellosis are reported every year in the United States, but amebiasis usually afflicts people in developing countries. However, cases of amebiasis have occurred in the United States, usually after immigrants from developing countries transmit the parasite, travelers bring it back, or unsanitary living conditions help breed it.
Poor hand washing and hygiene habits, especially among children and food handlers, help spread both forms of dysentery. Vegetables harvested in a sewage-tainted field, flies that act as carriers of bacteria, and water supplies and swimming pools can all be sources of Shigella.
Unlike most bacterial causes of diarrhea, very few (fewer than 100) bacteria are needed to transmit shigellosis, so it spreads easily from person to person. Besides the infection itself damaging the intestines, Shigella bacteria produce toxins that cause further damage.
Shigella bacteria incubate in the body for a couple of days after exposure before symptoms appear, and they generally run their course in five to seven days (although you can still be contagious up to two weeks later). E. histolytica can incubate in the body for one to four weeks, and even then, only one in ten infected people will show any sign of illness. If you do get sick, symptoms should resolve themselves on their own, but you should drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. You may be prescribed antibiotics for either shigellosis or amebiasis to help lessen the severity and length of the illness.
The long-term outcome of both shigellosis and amebiasis is good. In some cases, shigellosis can cause Reiter's syndrome, and the parasite that causes amebiasis can spread outside the intestines, particularly to the liver.
Who's at Risk for Dysentery?
Children between the ages of 2 and 4 are the most common victims, as are their families. Anyone who works in a child-care facility or who works or lives in a long-term care facility is also at risk. Children younger than 2 who develop shigellosis may develop a high fever that can cause seizures, but this is rare. Amebiasis cases in the United States are most common to travelers who visit the developing world.
Defensive Measures Against Dysentery
Follow this advice to lower the risk of these diarrhea-causing invaders:
- Teach toddlers to lather up. Educating your little ones about how to wash their hands, and being sure they do so every time they use the restroom, will help you spend less time at the doctor's office.
- Ditch the diaper properly. If your baby has diarrhea, wrap up the soiled diaper in a plastic bag and dispose of it in a garbage can with a closed lid. After changing the diaper, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly and clean the changing area with a bleach-based household cleaner.
- Keep the pool clean. Teach little ones early on that the swimming pool is not a bathroom. When visiting a public pool, know where the restroom is and ask the kids often if they need to use it.
- Be fickle about your food. Wash your vegetables and fruits thoroughly before you eat them or cook them.
- Keep to yourself. If you have diarrhea, avoid contact with others. In addition, don't cook food or pour water for anyone until your symptoms are gone.
- Go public. Letting your coworkers or fellow day-care buddies know about your symptoms may help stop an outbreak. Don't hesitate to let people know about your symptoms as soon as you can so they pay extra attention to their hygiene habits.
Foodborne bacteria can turn a lovely meal into your stomach's worst nightmare. Go to the next page to learn how to avoid food poisoning.This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.