What’s Shigella? All about the new STI that’s on the rise in the UK

We’re all told in secondary school about HIV/AIDS, gonorrhoea, chlamydia, syphilis and herpes. We’re told how to avoid them, and what they look like. That way we can keep ourselves safe – right? Well, we thought so too, and yet more and more people are now getting an STI called shigella… But what is shigella?

What is it? 

Shigella
Source: CDC

Shigella is a bacterium that causes an illness called shigellosis. It is a type of food poisoning that can cause belly pain, fever and watery or bloody diarrhoea.

The illness is particularly common among children, and is often what gets referred to as a ‘stomach bug’, but it is also sometimes picked up in developing countries.

Generally, the patient can rest and drink fluid, and the disease will go away within 5 to 7 days. In some cases, this will not be enough, and you may need to to the hospital. In more developed countries, shigellosis is much less deadly than in developing nations.

How do you get it? 

Whilst it is particularly prominent in children and infants, there is currently a rise in shigellosis in young adults and teenagers in the UK. There has not only been a rise in cases, but the strain of bacteria is particularly drug-resistant. It is likely that these teens and young adults are catching the disease during sex.

The bacteria pass through your stomach and then spread through your intestines, and there they cause cramping. They then leave the body through faeces. The disease, therefore, is caused by contact with human faeces. Particularly, accidentally (or purposefully) ingesting it. This often happens in nurseries, hospitals and old folks’ homes where people aren’t able to be as vigilant about their hygiene, but it can also happen during oral-anal intercourse. This is likely what is happening at the moment.

What are the symptoms? 

shigella sickness
Source: NPR

The main, and worst symptom, is diarrhoea that is particularly liquidy or has blood in it. You may also find that you struggle with a fever, nausea, vomiting, cramping and tenesmus. The latter is a feeling of needing to use the bathroom even when you physically have nothing left in your intestines.

Most cases of shigellosis clear up without drug intervention, but if you struggle with chronic illness, you may need more support. You should contact your GP or 111 if your diarrhoea is severe or if you spot blood or mucus or if you have a fever.

Does it cause any other illnesses?

After a shigella infection, you might find that you suffer long-term dehydration, and possible even post-infection arthritis and other conditions. These include bloodstream infection and hemolytic-uremic syndrome, wherein an infection destroys your red blood cells.

How is it treated?

Most mild cases of the illness can be treated by drinking fluid and resting. Avoiding any drugs that stop diarrhoea will also help, as these can often make shigellosis worse.

If you do go to see your doctor, you might get prescribed some antibiotics.

How can I prevent catching shigella? 

how to prevent shigella
Source: Medical News Today

There is not a vaccine or a cure for shigellosis, so all you can do is maintain good hygiene. If you are going to be involved in oral-anal or any kind of anal sex, be sure to clean yourself first and ensure your partner does, too. Make sure you use a condom or a dental dam if you’re still concerned, and use a new one for oral or anal sex.

Where can I get advice on STIs and shigellosis? 

There are sexual health clinics in every city, like these ones in Nottingham and Southampton. If you’re nervous to go and speak to someone in person, or you can’t get to a sexual health clinic, check out sh:24, run by the NHS. They offer free sexual health services online, including ordering testing kits and other advice.

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