Shigellosis (Bacillary Dysentery)


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Micrograph of small round red blood cells and larger and darker white blood cells.
Red and white blood cells can be seen in this micrograph of a stool sample from a patient with shigellosis.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

OpenStax Microbiology

When gastrointestinal illness is associated with the rod-shaped, gram-negative bacterium Shigella, it is called bacillary dysentery, or shigellosis. Infections can be caused by S. dysenteriaeS. flexneriS. boydii, and/or S. sonnei that colonize the GI tract. Shigellosis can be spread from hand to mouth or through contaminated food and water. Most commonly, it is transmitted through the fecal-oral route.

Shigella bacteria invade intestinal epithelial cells. When taken into a phagosome, they can escape and then live within the cytoplasm of the cell or move to adjacent cells. As the organisms multiply, the epithelium and structures with M cells of the Peyer’s patches in the intestine may become ulcerated and cause loss of fluid. Stomach cramps, fever, and watery diarrhea that may also contain pus, mucus, and/or blood often develop. More severe cases may result in ulceration of the mucosa, dehydration, and rectal bleeding. Additionally, patients may later develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a serious condition in which damaged blood cells build up in the kidneys and may cause kidney failure, or reactive arthritis, a condition in which arthritis develops in multiple joints following infection. Patients may also develop chronic post-infection irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

S. dysenteriae type 1 is able to produce Shiga toxin, which targets the endothelial cells of small blood vessels in the small and large intestine by binding to a glycosphingolipid. Once inside the endothelial cells, the toxin targets the large ribosomal subunit, thus affecting protein synthesis of these cells. Hemorrhaging and lesions in the colon can result. The toxin can target the kidney’s glomerulus, the blood vessels where filtration of blood in the kidney begins, thus resulting in HUS.

Stool samples, which should be processed promptly, are analyzed using serological or molecular techniques. One common method is to perform immunoassays for S. dysenteriae. (Other methods that can be used to identify Shigella include API test strips, Enterotube systems, or PCR testing. The presence of white blood cells and blood in fecal samples occurs in about 70% of patients. Severe cases may require antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin and azithromycin, but these must be carefully prescribed because resistance is increasingly common.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: