Shigella is a bacteria that can cause a disease called shigellosis. (Yes, scientists and doctors are very creative when naming diseases.) Most cases of shigellosis are caused by eating contaminated food (usually vegetables) or drinking contaminated water. There are around 14,000 cases reported each year in the U.S. However, most cases of shigellosis are mild, don’t require treatment, and aren’t reported. With this in mind, doctors estimate that there are actually closer to 280,000 cases in the U.S. every year.
Symptoms of shigellosis are similar to those of other food-borne illneses – severe abdominal cramps, diarrhea (may be bloody), and a fever. These symptoms usually start 1-2 days after the contaminated food was eaten. Most of the time, these symptoms resolve on their own with rest and plenty of fluids in 5-7 days. However, because the bacteria damage the lining of the intestines, it can be several months before an infected person’s bowel habits return to normal.
As with other causes of food poisoning, young children, older adults, pregnant women, and anyone with a compromised immune system are at the highest risk for becoming infected with Shigella. Because this disease is primarily a hygiene issue, it is most common in toddlers. Children under two years old may develop a severe infection with diarrhea, a high fevers, and seizures. These children will need hospitalization for medical treatment.
The bacteria can still be shed in stool for up to 2 weeks after all the symptoms have resolved. Some people can shed the Shigella bacteria even without experiencing any symptoms of food poisoning. This makes good hygiene even that much more important – someone who looks completely healthy can be spreading this bacteria without knowing it.
Because Shigella is primarily spread through contact with human stool, good personal hygiene is extremely important in preventing the spread of this disease. In addition, there are a few other things you can do at home to reduce your family’s risk of becoming sick from Shigella.
- Practice good personal hygiene. Wash your hands with soap and water after using the bathroom or changing a diaper, and before preparing food.
- Avoid drinking untreated water, such as water in lakes, streams, public pools, or backyard kiddie pools.
- Wash all produce before preparing it (except bagged, pre-washed produce).
- Use a food thermometer to know when meats are fully cooked.
- Perishable foods should not be kept at room temperature for longer than 2 hours.
Remember, signs of Shigella food poisoning don’t start to develop until 1-2 days after the contaminated food was eaten. It might be difficult to pinpoint exactly what was contaminated with Shigella to make you sick. Call a doctor if anyone in your family has diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, vomiting, or any other signs that you think might be food poisoning.