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

Other symptoms of dysentery can include:

  • painful stomach cramps
  • feeling sick or being sick (vomiting)
  • a high temperature

Dysentery is very infectious. You can pass it on if you do not properly and regularly wash your hands.

Types of dysentery

There are 2 main types of dysentery:

  • bacillary dysentery (shigellosis)
  • amoebic dysentery (amoebiasis)

Bacillary dysentery

Bacillary dysentery or shigellosis is caused by shigella bacteria. This is the most common type of dysentery in Ireland.

Amoebic dysentery (amoebiasis)

Amoebic dysentery (amoebiasis) is caused by an amoeba called Entamoeba histolytica. Amoeba is a single-celled parasite.

This type of dysentery is usually picked up abroad. It is usually found in tropical areas.

Causes of dysentery

Bacillary and amoebic dysentery are very infectious. They can be passed on if the poo (faeces) of an infected person gets into another person's mouth.

This can happen if someone with the infection does not wash their hands after going to the toilet. They can then touch food, surfaces or another person.

The infection usually affects groups of people who are in close contact. For example, in families, schools and nurseries.

There's also a chance of getting the infection through anal or anal-oral sex (rimming).

Some developing countries have poor sanitation. Infected poo may contaminate the water supply or food, particularly cold, uncooked food.

Treating dysentery

As dysentery usually gets better on its own after 3 to 7 days, treatment is not usually needed.

Drink plenty of fluids and use oral re-hydration solutions if necessary.

Painkillers, such as paracetamol, can help relieve pain and fever. Avoid anti-diarrhoea medicines, such as loperamide, because they can make things worse.

Stay at home until at least 48 hours after the last episode of diarrhoea. This will reduce the risk of passing the infection on to others.

How you can avoid passing on dysentery

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

To avoid passing the illness on to others

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after going to the toilet.
  • Stay away from work or school until you've 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've been free of symptoms for at least 48 hours.
  • Do not go swimming until you've been free of symptoms 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 cycle of your washing machine.
  • Clean toilet seats and bowls, flush handles, taps and sinks with detergent and hot water after use. Then wash them with a household disinfectant.
  • Avoid sexual contact until you've been free of symptoms for at least 48 hours.

It is easy to pass on shigella to other people. You may need some of your poo (stool) samples tested before you to return to work, school or nursery.

The type of shigella you have and whether you or others, are in a risk group will influence how long you need to stay away.

Risk groups include:

  • healthcare workers
  • people who handle food
  • people who need help with personal hygiene
  • very young children

When to see a GP

It's not always necessary to see a GP if you have dysentery. It usually gets better within a week or so.

You should see a GP if your symptoms are severe or they do not start to improve after a few days. Let your GP know if you've been abroad recently.

If your symptoms are severe or persistent, a GP may prescribe a short course of antibiotics. If you have very severe dysentery, you may need treatment in hospital for a few days.

Reducing your risk of catching dysentery

You can reduce your risk of getting dysentery by:

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

If you're travelling to a country where there's a high risk of getting dysentery

  • Do not drink the water unless you're sure it's clean (sterile). Drink bottled water or drinks in sealed cans or bottles.
  • If the water isn't sterile, boil it for several minutes. You can also use a chemical disinfectant or a reliable filter.
  • Do not clean your teeth with tap water.
  • Do not have ice in your drinks because it may be made from unclean water.
  • Avoid fresh fruit or vegetables that cannot be peeled before you eat them.
  • Avoid food and drink sold by street vendors, except drinks in properly sealed cans or bottles.

Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE

Page last reviewed: 24 March 2021
Next review due: 24 March 2024

This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.