A new STI called shigella is spreading across the UK – and experts are pretty worried

An ‘extremely antibiotic-resistant’ form of the bacteria is currently on the rise

Ed Cunningham
Written by
Ed Cunningham
News Editor, Time Out UK and Time Out London
Shigella bacteria
Photograph: Shutterstock

Shigella – ever heard of it? Well, it might be about to get a whole lot better known. It’s a family of bacteria that can cause dysentery (i.e. infection of the intestines), and it’s on the rise in the UK.

While shigella has been known for quite a long time (more than a century, in fact), previously most cases in the UK were blamed on overseas travel. In recent months, however, there’s been a rise in domestic transmission. According to a recent government report, there have been at least 47 cases of shigella in the UK in the past four months – compared with just 16 cases in the 17 months prior to that.

What’s more, new strains of shigella are proving ‘extremely antibiotic-resistant’, meaning that previous treatments aren’t working as effectively on current forms of the bacteria. So, obviously, experts are pretty worried. Here are a few pointers about how shigella spreads, how you can avoid it, and, if you do catch it, how to get rid of it.

How do you catch shigella?

Shigella is typically transmitted through accidental ingestion of faecal matter containing the bacteria. Historically, the majority of cases have occurred in gay and bisexual men, though women can also catch it. Oral-anal sex, and unwashed hands and sex toys, are thought to be the primary causes of transmission.  

What are the symptoms – and what should you do about them?

The reason many shigella cases go undiagnosed (and thus a primary reason the STI is able to spread) is because its symptoms are rather similar to food poisoning. Severe and prolonged diarrhoea, stomach cramps and fever are the main things to look out for. These symptoms usually pop up around three days after sex. If they do, go to a GP or STI clinic to get tested.

How do you treat shigella?  

Thankfully, shigella is usually treatable with standard antibiotics. A doctor will prescribe these. If you have the ‘extremely drug-resistant’ strain of the bacteria, they will likely be able to prescribe stronger doses of antibiotics. 

How do you avoid shigella and stop it spreading? 

A good rule of thumb is not only to use a condom, but to change condoms between oral and anal sex. Always wash your hands thoroughly after sexual contact, or if you want to be super-safe, use latex gloves. For oral-anal sex, various barriers are available to prevent direct contact.

To stop shigella from spreading, it’s always a good idea to get regularly tested for STIs. If you catch the infection, you should avoid sexual activity for at least one week after symptoms have stopped.

If you want to find out more, go to the UK Government’s shigella information page.

Did you see that a new case of super-gonorrhoea has been found in London?

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