What parents should know about shigella

Shigella is a bacteria that can cause stomach problems, especially in children under 5 years old. (Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns of a rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria known as shigella, and the agency says most infections occur in children under age 5. Shigella can cause bloody diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain, among other things, making this an illness no one wants to have. It is understandable for parents of young children to be concerned.

The CDC said in a health advisory late last month that it has seen an increase in “highly drug-resistant” shigella, meaning these cases are difficult to treat. The agency also said the rise in these shigella cases raises “potentially serious public health concerns.”

While doctors say there are many other illnesses floating around right now that your child is more likely to get, they also emphasize how important it is to at least know that shigella consists. “Shigella Infections are not as common as viruses like norovirus, but parents should know what to look for and when to have their child evaluated,” Dr. Danelle Fisher, a pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life.

What is shigella and what are the signs that your child may have an infection? Here’s what you need to know.

First, what is shigella?

Shigella is a bacteria that causes an infection known as shigellosis. Shigella leads to an estimated 450,000 infections in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC. There are four types of shigella — Shigella Sonnei, Shigella flexneri, Shigella boydii and Shigella dysenteriae. is the most common form in the US, according to the CDC.)

Shigellosis is a fecal-oral disease, meaning it’s spread when particles of poop get into your mouth. The CDC says you’re most likely to contract shigellosis in one of the following ways:

  • Getting shigella on your hands and then touching your mouth. (This can happen from touching infected surfaces like toys or bathroom fixtures, or changing the diaper of a child with shigella.)

  • Eating food prepared by someone with a shigella infection.

  • Swallowing water in which you swim or play.

  • Ingestion of contaminated drinking water.

  • Exposure to feces during sexual contact with someone who has a shigella infection or who has recently recovered from a shigella infection.

“Shigella can be routinely spread among young children who wash their hands poorly, and outbreaks can be seen in daycare centers and schools,” Bessey Geevarghese, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, tells Yahoo Life.

How can you distinguish a shigella infection from other gastrointestinal diseases, such as norovirus?

Shigellosis can cause the following symptoms, according to the CDC:

Symptoms usually begin one to two days after a person is infected and last seven days, according to the CDC.

But Fisher says it’s “very hard to distinguish” shigella from other infections, even for doctors. Still, she says, there are some clues that your child may have shigellosis. “We always ask about the presence of blood — shigella has more blood in the stool than, say, norovirus,” Fisher says. “Another characteristic is that you feel like you have to poop, but you don’t have to poop — that’s more common with shigella.”

But in the end, doctors will only know for sure by testing.

How is a shigella infection diagnosed and treated?

Geevarghese says doctors and parents should at least suspect shigella if a child has blood with poop and mucus along with stomach cramps. But the bacteria can only be properly diagnosed with a stool culture, Fisher says. “Your child can poop in a paper cup and you can bring it in, or your pediatrician’s office can give you supplies to collect a sample,” she says. (A stool culture will also help your doctor know which antibiotics may be effective against the strain of shigella your child has, Geevarghese notes.)

In general, “the main danger of this disease is dehydration,” says Geevarghese. And if your child is having a hard time, they may be given oral antibiotics for three to five days. Keep this in mind, too, according to Geevarghese: Most of the antibiotic-resistant strains detected in the US so far have been in adults.

“Most people with shigella infections can get over it on their own,” says Fisher. “If your child is already on the way to getting better, you don’t necessarily need to treat them. But if things aren’t going well or are getting worse – especially if there is dehydration – they may benefit from hospitalization and antibiotics by a drip.”

In general, doctors say that your child is more likely to have an infection such as norovirus than shigella., but it is important to be careful. “It’s just misery for everyone right now,” Fisher says. “Proper hand washing cannot be stressed enough. I wish there was a magic pill or supplement to prevent this, but there isn’t. It’s really about doing your best to stay healthy – that’s all you can do.”

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