What Foods Cause Shigella?

Reviewed on 2/3/2021

Shigella is a germ that causes a highly contagious disease called shigellosis (bacillary dysentery).
Shigella is a germ that causes a highly contagious disease called shigellosis (bacillary dysentery).

Shigella is a germ that causes a highly contagious disease called shigellosis (bacillary dysentery). It is an acid-resistant, salt-tolerant bacteria. It has been increasingly involved in foodborne outbreaks. In 2002, Shigella was the third most reported foodborne bacterial pathogen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Shigellosis is most caused by an infected food handler, who practices poor personal hygiene. Shigella can survive in many types of foods, such as:

  • Fruits
  • Raw, unwashed vegetables, such as potatoes
  • Raw salad (macaroni)
  • Raw food items, such as sandwiches
  • Poultry (chicken) and eggs
  • Milk and dairy products
  • Low pH food
  • Food contaminated with human waste or dirt
  • Unhygienically prepared foods
  • Food held in a modified atmosphere
  • Vacuum packaged food items
  • Refrigerated food items
  • Contaminated seafood

What exactly does Shigella mean?

Shigella is a family of bacteria or germs that cause a gut (intestinal) infection called “shigellosis.” It causes diarrhea and blood sticky stools. It is an extremely contagious infection and can spread very easily. Even a small number of germs can make you extremely sick.

People with shigellosis may shed Shigella in their stool (waste), spreading the infection to others even weeks after recovering from diarrhea.

How do you get it?

You may get infected with Shigella if the germ enters the body through the mouth while you are:

  • Eating food prepared by a person who is infected with Shigella.
  • Swallowing contaminated drinking water and eating contaminated, raw food.
  • Accidentally swallowing recreational water, such as lake water or improperly treated swimming pool water.
  • Touching your mouth with contaminated hands while changing diapers or cleaning surfaces contaminated with Shigella, such as the bathroom.
  • Exposed to stool during sexual activity with a person infected with a Shigella or recently recovered from Shigella.

Who is most likely to get it?

Certain groups of people have a higher risk of getting shigellosis, such as

  • Young children
  • Travelers to developing countries
  • Men having sex with other men
  • People with HIV or those who undergo medical treatment, such as chemotherapy, for cancer. Severe Shigella infection in these individuals can spread into the blood, which can be life-threatening.
  • Large outbreaks of shigellosis often start in childcare settings and spread among small social groups.

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What are the symptoms and how long do they last?

If you have shigellosis, then you may experience:

Symptoms usually start 1-2 days or sometimes 4 days after eating the contaminated food. The symptoms may last up to 4-7 days. You may get seizures from high fever. The health care provider may order a laboratory test to identify Shigella bacteria in the stool.

In some cases, bowel habits (frequency and consistency of stool) do not return to normal for several months.

How can shigellosis be treated?

Usually, people with shigellosis get better without any antibiotic treatment in 5-7 days. Some people with mild shigellosis might require only fluid and rest. Oral fluid consumption and hydration are important parts of the treatment.

Your doctor may suggest:

  • Pepto-Bismol (Bismuth subsalicylate) to reduce diarrhea. Antidiarrheal medications, such as Imodium (loperamide), are not advised as they slow down gut function and may result in increased toxin accumulation in the gut.
  • Antibiotics may help you to get better faster in severe cases. However, certain types of Shigella germs may not respond to some antibiotics. Therefore, the doctor may order certain laboratory tests (blood or stool culture and sensitivity) to determine which antibiotics are likely to work.
  • Adequate fluid intake with proper hygiene care.

How can I prevent shigellosis?

You can reduce the chance of getting sick from Shigella by taking the following steps:

  • Wash hands carefully with soap and water before preparing food, eating, and after changing a diaper and using the toilet.
  • Observe and supervise handwashing of toddlers and small children after they use the washroom.
  • Properly dispose of soiled diapers in a covered, lined garbage can. Clean diaper changing areas after use.
  • Avoid swallowing water from ponds, lakes, or untreated swimming pools, and discourage your children from doing the same.
  • Stick to safe eating and drinking habits as well as washing hands while traveling internationally.
  • Avoid having sex in any form until and several weeks after the recovery of your partner from diarrhea.
  • Avoid preparing food for others if you are sick.
  • Avoid childcare and daycare facilities if the baby is sick with diarrhea.
  • Avoid taking your child swimming or to group water play if they are sick.

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References
WebMD. What Is Shigella? https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/food-poisoning/what-is-Shigella#1

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shigella – Shigellosis. https://www.cdc.gov/Shigella/infection-sources.html

Mayo Clinic. Shigella Infection. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/Shigella/symptoms-causes/syc-20377529

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