Treating dysentery 

Dysentery usually clears up after a few days and no treatment is needed. However, it is important to replace any fluids that have been lost through diarrhoea. 

Treating diarrhoea

Diarrhoea can be treated by:

  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • taking oral rehydration solutions (ORS)
  • eating when you are able to

Information and advice about each of these is provided briefly below, but for more detail see treating diarrhoea.

Drinking fluids

If you have diarrhoea and vomiting, you should drink plenty of fluids to replace those that have been lost and to avoid dehydration. Take small, frequent sips of water.

It is very important that babies and small children do not become dehydrated. You should make sure that your child takes frequent sips of water even if they vomit. Taking a small amount of fluid is better than not taking any at all. Avoid giving your child fruit juice or fizzy drinks because these can make their diarrhoea worse.

In severe cases of diarrhoea, fluid may need to be given intravenously (through a drip into the arm) in hospital.

Oral rehydration solutions (ORS)

If you are particularly vulnerable to the effects of dehydration; for example, because you are 60 years of age or over, your GP or pharmacist may suggest using an ORS. An ORS may also be recommended for your child if they are dehydrated or at risk of dehydration. 

ORS usually come in sachets available without a prescription from your local pharmacist. You dissolve them in water and they help to replace salt, glucose and other important minerals that your body loses through dehydration.

Rehydration drinks can't cure diarrhoea but they can help treat or prevent dehydration. Don't use homemade salt or sugar drinks.

Advice about eating

Expert opinion is divided over when and what you should eat if you have diarrhoea. However, most experts agree that you should eat solid food as soon as you feel able to. Eat small, light meals and avoid fatty, spicy or heavy foods.

If you feel that you're unable to eat, it should not do you any harm, but make sure that you continue to drink fluids and eat as soon as you can.

If your child is dehydrated, avoid giving them any solid food until they have drunk enough fluids. Once they have stopped showing signs of dehydration; for example, they have become less irritable and started passing urine more frequently, your child can start to eat their normal diet.

If your child is not dehydrated, you should offer them their normal diet. If they refuse to eat, continue to offer drinks and wait until their appetite returns.

Antibiotics for bacillary dysentery

If you have moderate to severe dysentery that is caused by the shigella bacteria, antibiotics may be recommended to shorten the length of time that your symptoms last.

A number of different antibiotics can be used, including ciprofloxacin. However, the exact antibiotic that is recommended is likely to depend on the organism’s pattern of resistance to some antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is where the medicines are no longer able to kill the bacteria that they are meant to fight.

Antibiotics are not prescribed for mild cases of dysentery. This is because generally, overusing antibiotics to treat minor ailments can make them less effective in treating more serious or life-threatening conditions. 

Treating amoebic dysentery

If you have amoebic dysentery (amoebiasis), your GP may prescribe an antibiotic called metronidazole. They will let you know how long you need to take it for, which will usually be around five days. Tinidazole is a possible alternative medicine.

After you have finished taking the antibiotics, you should be given a course of diloxanide (a medicine that kills the more resistant amoebic cyst forms). You will need to take diloxanide for 10 days.

Page last reviewed: 26/03/2013

Next review due: 26/03/2015