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Shigella and Drinking Water from Private Wells
What is shigellosis?
Shigellosis (shi-ghel-O-sis) is an infectious disease caused by a group of bacteria known as Shigella. Shigellosis is one of the most contagious types of diarrhea caused by bacteria. It is a common cause of waterborne outbreaks in the United States, though most of these outbreaks occur in recreational water rather than in drinking water.
How can I become infected with shigellosis?
You can be infected with Shigella through the following ways:
Person-to-person contact: most Shigella infections occur when individuals accidentally put into their mouths something contaminated with feces from a Shigella-infected person. This often happens when basic personal hygiene and hand-washing habits are poor.
Eating contaminated foods: if infected food handlers do not wash their hands with soap and water after using the bathroom, they could easily contaminate the foods they are preparing. Vegetables from a field that has sewage in it can become contaminated. The bacteria can also be spread to food items by flies that breed in infected feces.
Swallowing contaminated drinking or recreational water can also lead to infection.
Where and how does Shigella get into drinking water?
Shigella is found in every part of the United States and throughout the world. The bacteria can get into groundwater and private wells through discharges from faulty septic systems or sewage treatment plants. Wells may be more vulnerable to such contamination after flooding, particularly if the wells are shallow, have been dug or bored, or have been submerged by floodwater for long periods of time.
What are the symptoms of shigellosis?
The most common symptoms of shigellosis include:
Diarrhea that may be mild or severe, watery or bloody
Vomiting and abdominal cramps may also occur. Symptoms generally begin within 12-96 hours (usually 1-3 days) after exposure to Shigella, and usually last for 4-7 days. Some infected people have no symptoms. However, persons with weakened immune systems (e.g., person with HIV/AIDS, cancer patients, and transplant patients) or the elderly may experience a more serious infection that can lead to severe, if not life-threatening illness.
What should I do if I think I have shigellosis?
See your health care provider to discuss your concerns. Treatment is available.
How is a shigellosis infection diagnosed?
A laboratory test can tell you if Shigella is the cause of your illness. The test will identify the bacteria in the stool of an infected person. Most laboratories do not routinely look for the organism unless a physician asks them to do so. The laboratory can do special tests to tell which type of Shigella is present and which antibiotics, if any, would treat the infection most effectively.
What is the treatment for shigellosis?
If you have a mild infection, you will usually recover quickly without antibiotic treatment. Otherwise, shigellosis can be treated with antibiotics. Appropriate treatment shortens the illness by killing the bacteria present in the stool. Avoid anti-diarrheal agents such as loperamide (Imodium), because they are likely to make the illness worse. Consult with your health care provider.
Although Shigella can infect anyone, young children and pregnant women are more likely to become dehydrated from diarrhea; they should drink plenty of fluids while ill.
How can I remove Shigella from my drinking water?
Heating water at a full boil for 1 minute (3 minutes if you live in a high altitude) will kill or inactivate Shigella. Water should then be stored in a clean container with a lid and refrigerated.
Currently, there is no filter certified to remove the bacteria from water. This issue is currently being studied.
You may also disinfect your well. Contact your local health department for recommended procedures. Remember to test your well water periodically after disinfection to make sure the problem does not recur.
Revised Summer 2003
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