What parents need to know about Shigella

Shigella is a bacterium that can cause stomach problems, especially in children under the age of 5. (Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns of an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria known as Shigella, and according to the agency, most infections occur in children under the age of 5. Shigella can cause bloody diarrhea, fever, and stomach pain, among other things, making this a disease 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 had seen an increase in “largely drug-resistant” Shigella, meaning these cases are difficult to treat. The agency also said the surge in these Shigella cases “raises potentially serious public health concerns.”

While doctors say there are many other diseases floating around right now that your child is more likely to get, they also stress the importance of at least being aware of this Shigella exists. “Shigella Infections aren’t as common as viruses like norovirus, but parents should know what to look out for and when to check their child,” said Dr., tells Yahoo Life.

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

First, what is Shigella?

Shigella is a bacterium that causes an infection known as shigellosis. Shigella causes an estimated 450,000 infections in the United States each year, according to the CDC. There are four types of Shigella — Shigella sonnei, Shigella flexneri, Shigella boydii and Shigella dysenteriae. (Shigella sonnei 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 get shigellosis in one of the following ways:

  • Getting Shigella on your hands and then touching your mouth. (This can happen by touching infected surfaces like toys or bathroom fixtures, or changing a child’s diaper with Shigella.)

  • Eating food prepared by someone with Shigella infection.

  • Swallow water in which to swim or play.

  • Ingestion of contaminated drinking water.

  • Being exposed to poop during sexual contact with someone who has, or has recently recovered from, Shigella infection.

“Shigella can be routinely spread among young children with poor hand washing, and outbreaks can be seen in day care centers and schools,” Bessey Geevarghese, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, tells Yahoo Life.

How to distinguish Shigella infection from other gastrointestinal diseases like norovirus?

According to the CDC, shigellosis can cause the following symptoms:

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

But Fisher says it can be “very difficult, even for doctors, to distinguish Shigella from other infections.” Still, she says, there are a few clues that your child might have shigellosis. “We always ask about the presence of blood — Shigella has more blood in the stool than, say, norovirus,” says Fisher. “Another feature is where you feel like you need to poop, but you don’t need to poop — that’s more common with Shigella.”

Ultimately, however, doctors will only know with tests.

How is Shigella infection diagnosed and treated?

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

In general, “the main danger of this disease is dehydration,” says Geevarghese. And if your child has problems, they can be given oral antibiotics for three to five days. Also, remember, per Geevarghese: Most of the antibiotic-resistant strains discovered 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 mend, you don’t necessarily need to treat them. But if he’s not well or gets worse — especially if dehydration is involved — he may benefit from hospitalization and antibiotics and an IV.”

Overall, doctors say your child is more likely to get an infection like norovirus than Shigella, but it is important to be careful. “It’s just misery out there for everyone,” says Fisher. “Good handwashing cannot be overemphasized. 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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