How Shigella Spreads

Key points

  • Shigella germs spread easily from one person to another.
  • It only takes a small amount of Shigella germs to make someone sick.
  • Learn how Shigella germs spread and why some people have a greater chance of getting an infection.
hi-definition image of Shigella germs under a microscope (color added)

How it enters the body

You can get sick if you swallow Shigella germs. People can get Shigella infection (shigellosis) by:

  • Getting Shigella germs on their hands and then touching their food or mouth. This can happen after:
    • Changing the diaper of a sick child or caring for a sick person.
    • Touching surfaces contaminated with germs from poop from a sick person. Surfaces include diaper pails, changing tables, bathroom fixtures, and toys.
  • Eating food that was prepared by someone who has a Shigella infection.
    • Foods that are consumed raw are more likely to be contaminated with Shigella germs.
    • Shigella germs can also get on fruits and vegetables if the fields where they grow are contaminated with poop containing the germ.
  • Swallowing recreational water (for example, lake or river water) while swimming or drinking water that is contaminated with poop containing the germ.
  • Having contact with poop during sexual contact with someone who has or recently had diarrhea.

Did You Know?

People with Shigella infection can shed (get rid of) the bacteria in their stool (poop) for up to two weeks after symptoms have gone away. If you or someone you know has or recently had diarrhea, be sure to take steps to help prevent the spread of disease.

Understanding risk

There are several groups of people who are most likely to get sick with a Shigella infection.

  • Young children experience shigellosis at a higher rate than most other groups. Children can get infected if they put unwashed hands in their mouth after touching something that is contaminated with Shigella germs. These germs can spread easily among children and to family members and others in the community. In fact, many outbreaks occur in settings such as childcare and school.
  • Travelers to countries that do not have treated tap water or adequate sanitation may be more likely to get shigellosis, and to become infected with strains of Shigella germs that can't be treated effectively by antibiotics. Travelers may get sick from food, drinking water, recreational water, and surfaces containing Shigella germs. Travelers can protect themselves by sticking to safe eating and drinking habits, and washing hands often with soap and water or using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available.
  • Gay or bisexual men and other men who have sex with men* are more likely to get Shigella infection than other adults. Shigella germs pass from the poop or soiled fingers of one person to the mouth of another person, which can happen during sexual activity. Many shigellosis outbreaks among gay and bisexual men have been reported worldwide. Although rates are higher among GBMSM, the risk is present for any sexual activity involving stool exposure. For more information, see Shigella Infection Among Gay, Bisexual, and Other Men Who Have Sex with Men (MSM).
  • People whose immune systems are weakened due to illness (such as HIV) or medical treatment (such as chemotherapy for cancer) can get a more serious illness. A severe shigellosis illness may involve the infection spreading into the blood, which can be life-threatening.
  • Large outbreaks of shigellosis often start in childcare settings and spread among small social groups.
  • Outbreaks can occur among any race, ethnicity, or community social circle because Shigella germs spread easily from one person to another.
  • *The term "men who have sex with men" is used in CDC surveillance systems because it indicates men who engage in behaviors that may transmit Shigella infection, rather than how someone identifies their sexuality.