Shigella infection (shigellosis) is an intestinal infection caused by the shigella family of bacteria. You can get shigellosis through direct contact with infected stool, eating contaminated food, or drinking or swimming in contaminated water. Mild cases of Shigella infection typically resolve themselves within a week. More severe cases may require treatment. Though anyone can get shigellosis, the infection is more common in children under the age of five.
Symptoms of Shigellosis
Some people with shigellosis never experience symptoms, but those who do typically begin to see the signs one to two days after coming into contact with the bacteria, though symptoms can take up to a week to appear. The main symptom of shigellosis is diarrhea, often containing mucus or blood. Other symptoms include abdominal cramps or pain, fever, and feeling the need to have a bowel movement even when the bowel is empty. These symptoms typically resolve within five to seven days but can last up to four weeks. In some cases, it may take several months before bowel habits return to normal.
Complications of Shigellosis
Although full recovery can take time, shigellosis typically clears up without complications. Dehydration can occur as a result of persistent diarrhea and in children presents with sunken eyes, dry diapers, dizziness, and a lack of tears. Severe dehydration can result in shock and death. One rare complication of the infection is reactive arthritis, which causes itching, redness, and discharge in one or both eyes, joint pain and inflammation, and painful urination. Hemolytic uremic syndrome can be caused by shigellosis as well, leading to low platelet counts, low red blood cell count, and kidney failure. Toxic megacolon is another rare complication of shigellosis. Symptoms include an inability to pass gas or stool, weakness, abdominal pain and swelling, and fever.
Causes of Shigellosis
People can contract shigella infection by failing to wash their hands thoroughly enough after changing an infected baby’s diaper and then touching food or the mouth. Direct person-to-person contact is the most common way shigella spreads. Eating food prepared by an infected person can also spread the infection. Fruits and vegetables can contain shigella if they were grown with fertilizers containing human feces. Swallowing or spending time in contaminated water is another way to contract the condition.
Risk Factors for Shigellosis
Although anyone can get shigellosis, children under the age of five are at higher risk. Living in close contact with others also increases the risk. Shigella outbreaks are more common in jails, community wading pools, military barracks, child care centers, and nursing homes. Traveling to developing countries increases one’s risk of contracting the disease. Additionally, men who have sex with other men are also at increased risk of getting shigella due to direct or indirect oral-anal contact during sex.
When to Seek Medical Attention
Anyone who is experiencing diarrhea containing mucus or blood or diarrhea severe enough to cause dehydration and weight loss should see a doctor right away. Other symptoms of Shigella, such as a temperature of higher than 101, should also be medically investigated quickly.
Many conditions can cause diarrhea containing mucus or blood. A doctor may request a stool sample to send to the lab to confirm a diagnosis of shigellosis.
Treatment for Shigellosis
Shigellosis typically clears up within five to seven days, and often mild cases affecting people otherwise in good health do not require any treatment. People with shigella should avoid anti-diarrheal drugs, as they can worsen symptoms. Antibiotics can help in severe cases, shortening the duration of the infection. Specifically, infants, seniors, and individuals with HIV/AIDS may need antibiotics.
Home Care for Shigellosis
Diarrhea dehydrates the body. Adults who are generally healthy may be able to counteract dehydration simply by drinking water. An additional rehydrating solution may benefit children. Adults and children who are severely dehydrated need to go to the emergency room, where a medical professional can administer intravenous fluids to rehydrate the body much faster than oral solutions.
Most people recover from shigellosis within five to seven days. Other times, it can take up to four weeks for symptoms to clear up, and bowel habits could take months to return to normal. While complications don’t often occur, they can include hemolytic uremic syndrome, seizures, dehydration, toxic megacolon, rectal prolapse, and reactive arthritis.
Prevent the spread of shigella infection by washing your hands often and well. Disinfect diaper-changing surfaces carefully, and dispose of diapers properly. Keep children who have diarrhea home from school, child care centers, and playgroups. Don’t make food for others if you have diarrhea, and don’t swallow water from ponds, lakes, or untreated swimming pools.