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Shigella Infections (Shigellosis)

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD

What Is a Shigella Infection?

An infection with Shigella (shih-GEL-uh) is called shigellosis (shih-guh-LOW-sus). It can cause watery diarrhea or diarrhea with blood and/or mucus in it.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Shigellosis?

Besides diarrhea, shigellosis can cause:

  • belly cramps
  • high fever
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea and vomiting
  • painful bowel movements (pooping)

Shigellosis can lead to dehydration. In rare cases, other complications like arthritis, seizures, and kidney problems can happen.

What Causes a Shigellosis?

Shigellosis is very contagious. People can get infected through contact with something contaminated by stool (poop) from an infected person, such as:

  • toys
  • restroom surfaces
  • food prepared by an infected person

Shigella also can spread via:

  • flies that touch contaminated stool
  • water supplies in areas with poor sanitation

It doesn't take many Shigella bacteria to cause an infection, so the illness spreads easily in families and childcare centers. For instance, kids who touch a contaminated surface such as a toilet or toy and then put their fingers in their mouths can get shigellosis.

Shigella can pass in a person's stool for about 4 weeks, even after the obvious symptoms of illness have gotten better.

How Is Shigellosis Treated?

To see if your child has shigellosis, the doctor will take a stool sample to test for Shigella bacteria.

Shigellosis often goes away without treatment. Doctors sometimes give antibiotics to those who have serious symptoms or other medical conditions. Antibiotics can shorten the illness and help prevent the spread of bacteria to others.

If the doctor prescribes antibiotics, give them as prescribed. Don't give your child nonprescription medicines for vomiting or diarrhea unless the doctor recommends them because they can make the illness last longer. You can give acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) to reduce fever and make your child more comfortable.

To prevent dehydration, follow your doctor's advice about what your child should eat and drink. Your doctor may recommend a special drink called an oral rehydration solution (such as Pedialyte), to replace body fluids.

Children who become dehydrated or those with more serious symptoms may need treatment in a hospital.

How Can We Help Prevent Shigellosis?

The best way to prevent shigellosis and many other infections is to wash hands well and often. This is especially important after using the toilet (or changing a diaper) and before eating or preparing food.

If you're caring for a child who has diarrhea, wash your hands before touching other people and before handling food. (Anyone with a diarrhea should not prepare food for others.) Clean and disinfect any toilet used by someone with shigellosis often.

Also:

  • Throw away diapers worn by a child with shigellosis in a sealed garbage can. Wipe the changing area with disinfectant after each use.
  • Keep young children (especially those still in diapers) with shigellosis or any type of diarrhea away from other kids.
  • Proper food handling, storage, and preparation also can help prevent infections. Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot to prevent bacterial growth.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Call the doctor if your child has signs of shigellosis, such as watery diarrhea, diarrhea with blood or mucus, or belly pain.

Also call the doctor if your child has diarrhea and shows signs of dehydration, such as:

  • a dry or sticky mouth
  • peeing less than usual
  • no tears when crying
  • dizziness or drowsiness
Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: February 2019