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What Is the Difference Between Diarrhea and Dysentery?

Reviewed on 3/2/2021

What is diarrhea vs. dysentery?

Diarrhea may be caused by viruses or parasites whereas dysentery is a bacterial infection.
Diarrhea may be caused by viruses or parasites whereas dysentery is a bacterial infection.

Diarrhea and dysentery are conditions that affect your internal digestive and waste disposal system. Diarrhea is a loose, liquid stool discharged from your rectum when you go to the bathroom. It is a very common condition and can be caused by several things. Dysentery, contrary to popular belief, isn’t caused by viruses. It is a progressive symptom of bacterial diarrhea.

These two health conditions have similar symptoms. Dysentery is the more severe of the two conditions, but diarrhea can become a health problem, too. They are both intestinal disorders but are brought on for different reasons. 

It is essential to know the differences and symptoms so you know when to call the doctor. You can treat diarrhea at home, but you shouldn't try to treat dysentery on your own. Because it is a bacterial infection, it requires medicine for treatment.

What is diarrhea?

Diarrhea is loose, watery stool that occurs more than three times in one day. How long diarrhea lasts depends on what’s causing it. Some acute cases will resolve quickly, while other cases caused by viruses or parasites, can take a lot longer. If you’ve had it for more than two days, check with your doctor.

What is dysentery?

Dysentery is loose, watery stools with blood in them. Dysentery is caused by ingesting certain bacteria, most commonly Shigella.

What are the symptoms of diarrhea vs. dysentery?

Diarrhea and dysentery have similar symptoms, so it’s easy to mistake one for the other if you don’t know what to look for. The main indicator for dysentery is loose, runny stool with blood in it.

Diarrhea symptoms

Most people have experienced diarrhea sometime in their lives. Common symptoms are:

  • A sudden urge to empty your bowels
  • Loose, runny stool
  • Constantly going to the toilet to empty your bowels
  • Nausea
  • Cramping

Dysentery symptoms

Dysentery symptoms are the same as diarrhea. However, additional symptoms arise if you have the disease. Your symptoms might also include:

What are the causes of diarrhea vs. dysentery?

Several factors can cause diarrhea, and several bacteria can cause dysentery. Knowing what can cause each of the conditions that can help you prevent or reduce the risk of getting it.

Causes of diarrhea

In some patients, doctors are not entirely sure why diarrhea occurs. However, some known diarrhea causes are:

Causes of dysentery

A bacterial infection causes dysentery in your intestines. Bacteria enter your digestive system if you ingest contaminated food or liquids. The most common bacteria that cause dysentery are:

QUESTION

Pancreatitis is inflammation of an organ in the abdomen called the pancreas. See Answer

How to diagnose diarrhea vs. dysentery

Diagnosing diarrhea

Your doctor will talk to you about your diet and any recent trips you may have taken. They might want to know the type of foods you have been eating or where you might have eaten them. They will perform a physical exam, ask about any medicines you’re taking, and take a stool sample for testing. 

Diagnosing dysentery

Diagnosing dysentery is similar to diarrhea, but the doctor will take a sample of your stool and test it for bacteria.

Treatments for diarrhea vs. dysentery

To treat diarrhea and dysentery, doctors take different approaches. You can treat diarrhea by drinking lots of fluids and eating solid foods. You’ll need to build your electrolytes back up, so the doctor might tell you to drink some rehydrating sports drinks or Pedialyte. 

Treatments for diarrhea

If you have diarrhea, doctors recommend eating normally when your appetite returns, if you’ve lost it. Avoid the following foods and beverages when returning to your regular diet so that diarrhea doesn’t come back:

Treatments for dysentery

If you have dysentery, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin or azithromycin to treat the intestinal infection. 

Along with the antibiotics, the doctor will want you to drink a generous amount of fluids to flush your system and build your electrolytes up. Similar to treatments for diarrhea, Pedialyte or rehydrating sports drinks will work, as will eating solid foods.

Untreated, both conditions can be life-threatening. Severe dehydration can occur if you don’t see a doctor in time or if your diarrhea persists and won’t go away. If you experience any dysentery symptoms or have diarrhea that doesn’t go away, see your doctor immediately. 

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References
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Controlling the Spread of Infections in Evacuation Centers: DISASTER RECOVERY FACT SHEET.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Shigella.”

National Health Service: “Dysentery.”

Paediatrics and International Child Health: “Guidelines for the treatment of dysentery (shigellosis): a systematic review of the evidence.”

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Diarrhea.”

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Eating, Diet, & Nutrition for Diarrhea.”

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Symptoms & Causes of Diarrhea.”

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