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Washing clothes in the river (India)

History of Dysentery: Dysentery came from germs in your drinking water. Here people are washing clothes in the river (India)

What is dysentery?

Dysentery means having trouble with your insides – your intestines. You might say you had a tummy-ache. It usually means that you have very serious diarrhea.

What germs cause dysentery?
The digestive system
History of disease and doctors

The history of dysentery is long and serious. In the ancient and medieval world, dysentery killed about a third of all the babies born before they got to be a year old.

Read more about life expectancy

How did people get dysentery?

People usually got dysentery from germs (bacteria)  in their drinking water (though there are also viruses that can cause dysentery). This happened because there wasn’t any organized way to get rid of sewage, so the sewage got mixed in with the drinking water, and the germs in the sewage also got into the water.

Read more about toilets and sewage

Child's high chair/potty seat (Athens, ca. 580 BC)

Child’s high chair/potty seat (Athens, ca. 580 BC)

How did people try to keep from catching dysentery?

People knew that drinking water was dangerous, but they didn’t know why, or how to stop it. They didn’t even know germs existed!

History of beer
Wine and grapes
Where does cider come from?

A lot of people drank beer or wine or cider instead of water, to try to stay healthy. Dysentery was especially a problem in the summer, because in the winter cold might make the germs less active.

What happened if you got dysentery?

If you got dysentery, you lost water from your body faster than you could drink it, and after a few days you might die of dehydration (not having enough water in your body). Or your body might try to fight the infection by giving you a high fever.

Some people died of the fever. Strong adults usually lived, especially if someone helped them get plenty of water to drink. But babies and children and older people often died of dysentery.

Why don’t we get dysentery now?

In Alabama today, in the United States, people get dysentery from not having a good water system.

A lot of people still do get dysentery! But today most people can get clean water to drink, without dangerous bacteria in it. That’s because many cities built water systems in the 1800s. We are still using those old water systems today.

What if I did get it? Is there a cure?

Yes, in the 1940s, doctors worked out ways to use antibiotics to kill the bacteria inside your body. So today doctors can cure most cases of dysentery, if you can get to a doctor.
Did you find out what you wanted to know about the history of dysentery? Let us know in the comments!

Learn by doing: have you ever had diarrhea? What was it like?
More about cholera

Bibliography and further reading about the history of dysentery:


Bubonic plague (with pictures)
Measles home