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Dysentery Symptoms and Treatment

Updated on February 14, 2010

Dysentery is any of several disorders characterized by severe diarrhea, often with blood and mucus, pain, and cramps. Dysentery may be caused by various organisms, including bacteria, parasites, and viruses. In general, the disease is spread through water or food that has been contaminated by human wastes containing the disease-causing organisms. The most common and important kinds of dysentery are amebic dysentery and bacillary dysentery. Although both kinds of dysentery are most widespread in the tropics, they can occur in any climate. Epidemics of dysentery are most likely to break out where sanitation is poor.

Amebic Dysentery

Amebic dysentery is caused by a tiny parasitic ameba, called Endamoeba histolytica. These amebas are present in contaminated food and water in the form of thick-walled round bodies, called cysts. When the cysts are swallowed, they travel to the intestines, where they change into active amebas. As the amebas attack the lining of the intestine, the lining becomes inflamed, and small ulcers appear on its surface. When diarrhea is very severe, the loss of fluids and blood from the body may cause the patient to become seriously ill or even to collapse. Amebic dysentery usually occurs as a single attack. Sometimes, however, the disease occurs in a chronic form with mild attacks of diarrhea from time to time.

As a person recovers from dysentery, the amebas in his intestine again form cysts that are passed from the body. If swallowed into the body by another person, the cysts again change into the disease-causing amebic form. Amebic dysentery is also spread by people who carry the amebas in their intestines for long periods, although they themselves do not fall ill. Such people are known as carriers.

Bacillary Dysentery

Bacillary dysentery is an extremely widespread disease that is caused by several different bacteria belonging to the genus Shigella. Its symptoms are like those of amebic dysentery. Bacillary dysentery is largely spread through personal contact, but it may also be spread through contaminated water or food.


Both amebic dysentery and bacillary dysentery are treated by medicines that kill or remove the organisms that cause the disease. The patient may also be given medicines to relieve the diarrhea and other symptoms. Fluids, salts, and blood that are lost from the body are replaced intravenously and by mouth.


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