What is Dysentery? – History of diarrhea

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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.

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! 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.

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:

  

Smallpox
Bubonic plague (with pictures)
Measles
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By |2018-08-30T04:48:48+00:00September 6th, 2017|Greeks, Science|2 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is Dysentery? – History of diarrhea. Quatr.us Study Guides, September 6, 2017. Web. October 19, 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.

2 Comments

  1. garibaldo August 29, 2018 at 10:01 pm - Reply

    Good text! However, I would like to point out that cold does not kill microorganisms. It just slows their metabolism, making it less likely that they will proliferate to a infectious dose. In fact, we store all kinds of microorganisms in very cold freezers in labs in order to use them later in sibsequent experiments. Summer heat, on the other hand, creates the perfect conditions for the growth of thermostable coliforms, which indicate fecal contamination of the water and may cause dysentry as described in the text. But many other groups of bacteria, virus and protozoans can cause it too

    • Karen Carr August 30, 2018 at 4:31 am

      Thanks! I’ve tried to improve the article following your excellent suggestions.

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