Dysentery – History of diarrhea

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A waterfall in what is now the south-eastern United States

A waterfall in what is now the south-eastern United States

Dysentery means having trouble with your insides – your intestines. It usually means that you have very serious diarrhea. In the ancient and medieval world, dysentery killed about a third of all the babies born before they got to be a year old. They got dysentery from germs (bacteria) in their drinking water. 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.

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

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

People knew that drinking water was dangerous, but they didn’t know why, or how to stop it. 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 kill the germs.

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 of fever caused by the infection. Strong adults usually lived, but babies and children and older people often died of dysentery.

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

Bibliography and further reading about dysentery:


Bubonic plague (with pictures)
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By |2017-09-06T17:52:46+00:00September 6th, 2017|Greeks, Science|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Dysentery – History of diarrhea. Quatr.us Study Guides, September 6, 2017. Web. August 20, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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