What is E. Coli?
E. coli is a family of bacteria that lives in the intestines. Most strains of these bacteria are harmless, but some release toxins that can make you very sick. If you hear about an E. coli outbreak, it usually refers to the strain that produces a toxin called Shiga toxin. They can enter your body in many ways, although an estimated 85% of infections come through food.
E. coli is one of the most common bacterial causes of illnesses in the United States. This is why you should always make sure to cook your food properly, especially meats, and pay attention to news reports about any E. coli outbreaks in your area. It is also good to avoid unpasteurized milk and to wash your hands frequently when handling food or farm animals.
Signs and symptoms of E. Coli
Symptoms usually show about one to ten days after eating contaminated food. They can last about five to ten days without medical treatment.
The common symptoms of E. coli include:
- Cramping in the abdomen region
- Very bloody diarrhea
- Non-bloody diarrhea
- Extreme tiredness
- Little to no fever
Especially in children and the elderly, the infection could lead to a more serious kidney and blood disease called hemolytic uremic syndrome. This disease can cause seizures, bleeding from the gums and nose, and unexplained bruises, and it can be fatal. Take caution if you or someone you know belongs to either demographic and is showing these symptoms.
Causes of E. Coli
Since it lives in the intestines, E. coli leaves the body through fecal matter, from either humans or animals. The bacteria can survive for months in manure and water troughs, and can contaminate anything that comes in contact with them. As a result, most causes come from direct or indirect contact with waste materials.
E. coli mostly enters the body through food that hasn't been properly handled, causing food poisoning. In general, food that has been in contact with domestic or wild animals at some point may contain the bacteria. The common food sources of E. coli are:
- Undercooked meats: if you have a meat thermometer, ensure you cook meats to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit
- Unwashed fruits and vegetables
- Unpasteurized milk and milk products
- Unpasteurized juices and ciders
- Ready-to-eat food that has come in contact with contaminated food, like raw meat
Since most animals don't have baths every day or some kind of bathroom to safely get rid of contaminated waste matter, E. coli may be anywhere on their bodies. Therefore, farm animals can easily transmit it. As a result, it is important to wash your hands thoroughly if you work with farm animals or come in contact with them at all.
Since E. coli has such a long lifespan, avoid swallowing water when swimming in lakes or pools. Anyone with diarrhea should not swim in lakes or pools, as they may contaminate the water.
E. coli can spread through contact with people who do not wash their hands regularly. In particular, make sure you are washing your hands after using the bathroom or handling diapers, as the bacteria is most prevalent in stool.
Make sure to wash your hands after handling any animals, their bedding, or anything that may have come in contact with their feces.
You should also wipe down and wash all surfaces that come in contact with raw meat, to prevent cross-contamination.
When to see the doctor for E. Coli
You should see the doctor if you notice any of these symptoms:
- Diarrhea that lasts longer than three days
- High fever
- Blood in your stool
- Severe vomiting that doesn't let you hold liquids
Diagnosing E. Coli
Doctors usually diagnose E. coli by testing a stool sample to see if the bacteria is present. Sometimes, a doctor may also take a blood sample to check for complications.
Treatments for E. Coli
In most cases, E. coli goes away without any medical treatment. Diarrhea can dehydrate you, so drink a lot of fluids to accommodate. If you do get too dehydrated, you may need to go to the hospital for IV fluids.
Avoid antibacterial and antidiarrheal medications, as they can put you at higher risk for complications.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
FoodSafety.gov: "Bacteria and Viruses."
Infection and Immunity: "Probiotics Reduce Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli O157:H7- and Enteropathogenic E. coli O127:H6-Induced Changes in Polarized T84 Epithelial Cell
Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli."
KidsHealth: "E. Coli."
Monolayers by Reducing Bacterial Adhesion and Cytoskeletal Rearrangements."
World Health Organization: "E. coli."