Dysentery: Causes, Symptoms and Prevention

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Dysentery is a general term for an intestinal infection which causes severe diarrhea and abdominal discomfort. Untreated amoebic dysentery can give rise to liver abscesses; in rare cases the infection may spread to other organs.

Causes of Dysentery.

Bacillary dysentery is caused by one of four different bacteria belonging to the Shigella family. Amoebic dysentery results from an infection caused by the protozoan, entamoeba hystolytica. Both diseases are commonly found in tropical countries, but this can occur world-wide.

They are transmitted by food or drinking water that has been contaminated by faeces, either directly or by flies and other insects. Epidemics of this frequently occur where there are crowded conditions with poor sanitation, often following major disasters, but sometimes in schools and institutions. Amoebic dysentery does not epidemics, but is quite prevalent in the homosexual community.

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Symptoms of Dysentery.

The incubation period of bacillary dysentery is 12 hours to three days. Symptoms include abdominal pain, with profuse diarrhea with mucus or blood.

Amoebic dysentery develops more gradually. It causes bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain and causes flatulence.


Occasionally, arthritis affecting the knees or ankles may result as a side effect of bacillary dysentery, which can last for months or years.

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This is treated with kaolin and morphine, or codeine, to reduce diarrhea and abdominal pain. The patient must drink large quantities of liquid to prevent dehydration. Emetine is used to treat amoebic dysentery.


Patients suffering from this usually recover within a week. Amoebic dysentery is difficult to get rid of, and occasionally an inflammation the colon will give rise to a blockage some years later. Usually, however, complete recovery is possible.

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Frequently Asked Questions.

1. I’ll be going to India this summer. Is there a drug I can take with me in case I get amoebic dysentery?

The most sensible course of action would be to try to prevent the disease in the first place by avoiding food prepared with local water, such as fresh salad or washed fruit. Drink bottled water or tinned beverages, and eat only tinned meat and vegetables, and fruits which can be peeled. It is not a good idea to take any drugs with you for a stomach upset until the cause has been identified, as it may result in inadequate treatment and make accurate diagnosis more difficult.

2. Is typhoid the same as dysentery?

No, although there are some similarities as both are transmitted by contaminated food and water. But typhoid is a form of gastroenteritis (inflammation of the intestines), caused by bacteria belonging to the Salmonella family. The incubation period for typhoid is much longer, usually seven to 14 days.

3. I work as a cook. Is it possible for me to be a carrier of dysentery without knowing it?

Yes. If you are a carrier, then you are a potentially infectious person, particularly because of the nature of your job. If you think you are a carrier, you should go to your doctor who will send you for tests. In some countries, such as Great Britain, it is a notifiable disease. This means that your doctor will have to inform the health authorities, and will be within his or her rights to insist that you stop work until you are fully recovered.

4. Is dysentery a killer?

It can cause death by dehydration in the very young, the very old and the very sick. This is far more likely to occur in communities where there is a lack of medical facilities, and where people have been weakened by malnutrition.


Wherever there is poor sanitation or the chaos that follows natural disasters, dysentery can be a major health hazard. One should follow proper hygiene to prevent such condition.

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Experienced in the field of nutrition, health, fitness, and more. She earned Master Degree from National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad and currently serving in the Eastern branch of ICMR.

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