Dysentery is an infection of the intestines that causes diarrhoea containing blood or mucus.

Other symptoms of dysentery can include:

In the UK, most people with dysentery only experience mild symptoms. It's not always necessary to see a GP, as it tends to clear up within a week or so.

See your GP if your symptoms are severe or don't start to improve after a few days. Let them know if you have been abroad recently.

Treating dysentery

Treatment isn't normally needed, as dysentery usually clears up on its own.

However, it's important to make sure you drink plenty of fluids and use oral rehydration solutions (ORS) if necessary to avoid dehydration. See treating diarrhoea for more information on this.

Over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol can help relieve pain and a fever. It's best to avoid antidiarrhoeal medications such as loperamide, as they can make things worse.

You should stay at home until at least 48 hours after the last episode of diarrhoea to reduce the risk of passing the infection on to others.

If your symptoms are severe or persistent, your GP may prescribe a short course of antibiotics. In severe cases, you may need to be treated in hospital for a few days.

What causes dysentery?

There are two main types of dysentery:

  • bacillary dysentery or shigellosis – caused by shigella bacteria; this is the most common type of dysentery in the UK
  • amoebic dysentery or amoebiasis – caused by an amoeba (single-celled parasite) called Entamoeba histolytica, which is mainly found in tropical areas; this type of dysentery is usually picked up abroad

Both types of dysentery are highly infectious and can be passed on if the poo of an infected person gets into another person's mouth.

This can happen if someone with the infection doesn't wash their hands after going to the toilet and then touches food, surfaces or another person.

In the UK, the infection usually affects groups of people in close contact, such as in families, schools and nurseries.

There is also a chance of picking up the infection through anal or anal-oral sex ("rimming").

In developing countries with poor sanitation, infected poo may contaminate the water supply or food, particularly cold uncooked food.

Reducing your risk of catching dysentery

You can reduce your risk of getting dysentery with good hygiene.

You should:

  • wash your hands with soap and warm water after using the toilet and regularly throughout the day
  • wash your hands before handling, eating or cooking food
  • avoid sharing towels
  • wash the laundry of an infected person on the hottest setting possible

Read more about food safety and hygiene in the home.

If you're travelling to a country where there is a high risk of getting dysentery, the advice below can help prevent infection:

  • Don't drink the local water unless you're sure it's clean (sterile) – safe alternatives are bottled water or drinks in sealed cans or bottles.
  • If the water is not sterile, boil it for several minutes or use chemical disinfectant or a reliable filter.
  • Don't clean your teeth with tap water.
  • Don't have ice in your drinks as it may be made from unclean water.
  • Avoid fresh fruit or vegetables that can't be peeled before eating.
  • Avoid food and drink sold by street vendors, except drinks in properly sealed cans or bottles.

Read more about food and water safety abroad.

How you can avoid passing on dysentery

Handwashing is the most important way to stop the spread of infection. You are infectious to other people while you are ill and have symptoms.

Take the following steps to avoid passing the illness to others:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after going to the toilet.
  • Stay away from work or school until you have been completely free from any symptoms for at least 48 hours.
  • Help young children to wash their hands properly.
  • Do not prepare food for others until you have been symptom free for at least 48 hours.
  • Do not go swimming until you have been symptom free for at least 48 hours.
  • Where possible, stay away from other people until your symptoms have stopped.
  • Wash all dirty clothes, bedding and towels on the hottest possible cycle of the washing machine.
  • Clean toilet seats, toilet bowls, flush handles, taps and sinks with detergent and hot water after use, followed by a household disinfectant.
  • Avoid sexual contact until you have been symptom free for at least 48 hours.

As shigella is easily passed on to other people, you may need to submit poo (stool) samples to be given the all clear to return to work, school, nursery or a childminder.

The type of shigella you have and whether or not you or others are in a risk group will influence how long you need to stay away. 

Risk groups are people in certain occupations – including healthcare workers and people who handle food – as well as people who need help with personal hygiene and very young children. Your environmental health officer will advise you about this.

Page last reviewed: 18/02/2015

Next review due: 18/02/2017