Escherichia coli, better known as E. coli, has caused quite an uproar in recent years, with outbreaks leading to increased awareness about the dangers of this particular bacteria. This article covers all the important facts about E. coli infections, including the symptoms to watch for and how to prevent it from occurring.
What Is E. Coli?
E. Coli is a type of bacteria that is found in animal and human intestines. Many people are surprised to find out that it’s actually not that unusual to have E. coli in your body. The reason is that most varieties of E. coli are relatively harmless – they typically just cause a short bout of diarrhea.
Unfortunately, there are also more dangerous strains of E. coli which are much more serious in nature. These types of E. coli are normally found in contaminated water or food but may also be spread through person-to-person contact. Raw vegetables and undercooked ground beef are two of the main sources of this type of E. coli. Infection occurs when the strain of bacteria is ingested.
Exposure to a dangerous strain of E. coli may lead to the following symptoms:
- Watery diarrhea
- Bloody diarrhea
- Abdominal cramping
- Abdominal pain or tenderness
For most people, these symptoms will go away within a week. However, that isn’t always the case for young children or older adults. These two groups are more susceptible to the effects of E. coli and may develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) as a result of their infection. HUS can be life-threatening as it is a form of kidney failure.
At this time, there is no treatment to cure an infection of a dangerous strain of E. coli. There are also no treatments available to help relieve the symptoms associated with the infection or to prevent the potential complications. However, doctors generally advise that those with the infection get plenty of rest and clear fluids to relieve the dehydration and fatigue that result from getting sick. It’s also helpful to avoid dairy products, high-fiber foods and highly seasoned foods and slowly add low-fiber foods like soda crackers and toast back into your diet. In most cases, the infection will go away on its own. Children and seniors may need to be monitored more closely because of their increased risk of complications.
One important tip for those with an E. coli infection is not to use anti-diarrheal medications. With this type of infection, your body needs to get rid of the toxins. Taking an anti-diarrheal medication only slows down the digestive system, which prevents it from getting the toxins out of the body as quickly as possible.
There is no vaccine for E. coli, but you can reduce your risk of getting this infection by using the following tips:
- Cook meat completely. This is especially important for ground meat, but should be used for all types of meat preparation. Cook hamburgers until well-done, and use a meat thermometer to make sure the internal temperature is at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Wash fresh produce. Always rinse the produce you buy to wash away as much bacteria as possible. Be especially thorough when washing leafy greens.
- Drink pasteurized liquids. Your milk, juice and cider should all be pasteurized. If a drink is kept at room temperature, that is typically a sign that it’s pasteurized.
- Wash your hands. Always wash your hands after preparing food, using the bathroom or changing diapers. You should also wash your hands before eating as well. Make sure children follow these guidelines.
- Wash surfaces. After preparing fresh produce or raw meat, clean all utensils, cutting boards and surfaces completely before they touch anything else.
E. Coli Outbreaks
On June 10, 2012 the CDC reported that 14 people had been infected by a dangerous strain of E. coli during the preceding months. The onset of illnesses ranged from April 15 to May 12, 2012 – there have been no further related infections which have developed since then. The strain (called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli or STEC) was the same in all of the patients. The cases were found in the following states:
Four of the cases occurred in Louisiana, where a 21-month-old child) died due to their infection. The most cases in one state occurred in Georgia, where 5 people were infected. Experts have not determined the cause of the outbreak yet, but an investigation is ongoing.
Thanks to increased efforts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Services, outbreaks of E. coli are very rare. In addition, the number of cases of E. coli Most people can easily prevent this type of infection by practicing safe food preparation techniques and hygienic behaviors.