Dysentery is a treatable infection of the intestines characterized by bloody and mucousy diarrhea. It is typically contracted through contaminated food and water. Although dysentery can be fatal, as that classic computer game has taught us, it is a short-term infection that often resolves on its own or with medication. There are two forms of dysentery: bacillary shigella or shigellosis is most common, but parasitic amoeba or Entamoeba histolytica can cause the infection, as well. Dysentery symptoms are generally very similar to symptoms of other conditions.
Diarrhea is the key symptom of dysentery, but people with the infection can also experience headaches, vomiting, flatulence, severe stomach cramping and pain, weight loss, dehydration, and fever. Not everyone with dysentery will have every symptom. While the condition can resolve on its own, bloody diarrhea requires immediate medical attention and may be treated with antibiotics, hydration techniques, and IV fluids.
Dysentery affects fewer than 500,000 people every year. Most people contract dysentery by eating or drinking food and water contaminated by the bacterium or parasite mentioned above. Dysentery can also pass from person to person through oral-anal sexual contact or even through diaper-changing. Most people begin to notice symptoms of dysentery about 48 hours after exposure to Shigella bacteria, the most common form.
The people most at risk for contracting dysentery are those who live in institutions or countries with poor sanitation. Travelers who visit countries with poor sanitation are also more likely to contract the infection, as are men who have sex with men. However, bacillary dysentery is most prevalent among two- to four-year-olds. This form of dysentery is usually spread in daycare centers and in settings where people are in close contact with each other.
Treatment of dysentery often involves a variety of actions beginning with antibiotics to kill parasite or limit the growth of bacteria. In some cases, the patient can experience severe dehydration and require fluids through IV or electrolyte beverages.
Careful handwashing is one of the best ways to prevent dysentery. Wash your hands before handling food and after using the bathroom. If you live or visit somewhere with fewer sanitation regulations, make sure your drinking water is safe and sanitary. It is a good idea to boil water when its safety is questionable. Food should be refrigerated as needed and fully cooked, as well.
You can also take additional measures to protect yourself and those around you from contracting dysentery. Use screen doors and windows to prevent flies from being around food and water sources. Dispose of human waste in a safe and sanitary fashion. Also, infected individuals should abstain from preparing food and swimming in recreational pools and water parks until 48 hours after the resolution of all symptoms.
Dysentery can spread through sexual contact. Infected individuals should abstain from direct oral-anal sexual contact until all symptoms of the infection have passed, and take proper precautions going forward. It's also a safe practice to limit or abstain from sexual contact if there's a community outbreak of enteric infections.
Diarrhea is a common symptom that could indicate many different conditions and infections. However, diarrhea due to dysentery can be identified by blood and mucous in the stool. Most physicians combine a physical examination and patient history with other discovery methods to diagnose dysentery. Stool samples, blood tests, and colonoscopy can help them rule out other causes.
Dysentery can lead to serious complications. Extreme dehydration is more of a concern when it comes to babies, small children, pregnant women, and the elderly, and can result in hospitalization. Young children who experience symptomatic fevers can also develop seizures. Rectal prolapse, hemolytic anemia, thrombocytopenia, and acute kidney injury can also occur due to dysentery. Reactive arthritis, also known as Reiter’s syndrome, is another complication of the infection.
Ninety-nine percent of all dysentery cases occur in developing countries, and most involve children five years or younger. In 2016, shigellosis dysentery was one of the top six pathogens. Overcrowding and poor sanitation are the primary reasons for the spread of dysentery. The risk factors most heavily impact infants, young children, and adults older than 50 years.
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