What parents need to know about shigella — an antibiotic-resistant bacteria affecting children under 5

Shigella bacteria in pink puffy clusters.
Shigella is a bacteria that can cause stomach problems, particularly in children under 5. (Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning about an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria known as shigella, and, according to the agency, the majority of infections happen in children under the age of 5. Shigella can cause bloody diarrhea, fever and stomach pain, among other symptoms, making this an illness no one wants to have. For parents of young children, it's understandable to be concerned.

The CDC said in a health advisory late last month that it has seen an uptick in "extensively drug-resistant" shigella, meaning these cases are difficult to treat. The agency also said that the rise in these shigella cases brings up "potentially serious public health concerns."

While doctors say there are a lot of other illnesses floating around right now that your child is more likely to get, they also stress the importance of at least being aware that shigella exists. "Shigella infections are not as common as viruses like norovirus, but parents should know what to look for and when to have their child get evaluated," Dr. Danelle Fisher, a pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life.

What is shigella and what are the signs that your child may have an infection? Here's what you need to know.

First, what is shigella?

Shigella is a bacteria that causes an infection known as shigellosis. Shigella leads to an estimated 450,000 infections in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC. There are four species of shigella — Shigella sonnei, Shigella flexneri, Shigella boydii and Shigella dysenteriae. (Shigella sonnei is the most common form in the U.S., per the CDC.)

Shigellosis is a fecal-oral disease, which means it's spread when particles from poop get into your mouth. The CDC says you're most likely to contract shigellosis in one of the following ways:

  • Getting shigella on your hands and then touching your mouth. (This can happen from touching infected surfaces such as toys or bathroom fixtures, or changing the diaper of a child with shigella.)

  • Eating food prepared by someone with a shigella infection.

  • Swallowing water you swim or play in.

  • Swallowing contaminated drinking water.

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

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

How can you tell a shigella infection from other gastrointestinal illnesses, such as norovirus?

Shigellosis can cause the following symptoms, according to the CDC:

  • Diarrhea that can be bloody or last more than three days.

  • Fever.

  • Stomach pain.

  • Feeling the need to poop even when the bowels are empty.

Symptoms usually start one to two days after a person is infected and last seven days, according to the CDC.

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

Ultimately, though, doctors will know for sure only with testing.

How is a shigella infection diagnosed and treated?

Geevarghese says doctors and parents should at least suspect shigella if a child is having blood with poop and mucus, along with stomach cramps. But the bacteria can be properly diagnosed only with a stool culture, Fisher says. "Your child can poop into a paper cup and you can bring it in, or your pediatrician's office can give you supplies to gather a sample," she says. (A stool culture will also help your doctor know which antibiotics can be effective against the strain of shigella your child has, notes Geevarghese.)

In general, "the main danger from this illness is dehydration," Geevarghese says. And if your child is struggling, they may be given oral antibiotics for three to five days. Also, keep this in mind, per Geevarghese: Most antibiotic-resistant strains detected in the U.S. so far have been in adults.

"Most people with shigella infections can get over it on their own," Fisher says. "If your child is already on the road to getting better, you don't necessarily have to treat it. But if they're not doing well or are getting worse — especially if dehydration is involved — they may benefit from hospitalization and antibiotics through an IV."

Overall, doctors say your child is more likely to come down with an infection such as norovirus than they are to get shigella, but it's important to be cautious. "It's just misery out there for everybody right now," Fisher says. "Good handwashing cannot be stressed enough. I wish there was a magic pill or supplement to prevent this, but there's not. It's really about doing your best to stay healthy — that's all you can do."

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