One of the most popular Mexican restaurant chains in America Chipotle has temporarily shut 43 of its locations based in Washington and Portland, Oregon after an E. coli outbreak which infected 21 people, out of which 17 ate at a Chipotle restaurant. Surprisingly, this is the chain’s third food-borne illness this year, says the AFP.
Officials from the Washington State Department of Health fear that these numbers would only rise in the coming days, as a dozen more people were being tested for the E. coli bacteria on Monday.
Whatever be the case, this puts the spotlight once again on E. coli bacteria and the infections that this normally harmless bacterial strain can cause in humans. The Guardian reports that about 265,000 E. coli infections occur each year in the US alone.
Here’s all you should know about E. Coli infections and the precautions you must take to prevent an outbreak.
What Is An E.Coli Infection?
Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria are normally found living in the intestines of people and animals. Surprisingly, most E. coli strains are harmless and actually form an integral part of our intestinal tract and are imperative for a smooth digestion. 
However, it is the pathogenic form of E. coli that may cause an illness and result in a bad diarrheal episode or other serious intestinal infections. This pathotype of E. coli causes an illness by producing a toxin called the Shiga toxin and also known as the “Shiga-toxin-producing E. coli“, or STEC. 
- Contaminated Food: E. coli can be easily transmitted through contaminated food and water. Eating infected food such as ground beef, unpasteurized milk, and fresh vegetables such as spinach and lettuce, which are not cooked thoroughly before consuming.
- Human-To-Human Contact: It can also easily pass on by human-to-human contact, especially when the infected person does not maintain a proper hygiene. Outbreaks have also been reported among children who frequently visit zoos and animal farms or country fairs, where the cattle might be infected with E. coli.
- Infected Water: Human and animal feces may also contaminate ground and surface water which is then used for irrigation and other purposes.
The most vulnerable of all to suffer from E. coli infections are children and the elderly. While the infections can vary from person to person, the common symptoms that it manifests are: 
- Stomach and abdominal cramps, pain or tenderness
- Diarrhea, which may range from mild to severe, and bloody
- Nausea and vomiting in severe cases
Some people might also experience a low-grade fever (less than 101˚F/38.5˚C). Signs usually begin three to four days after the infection and the illness might last for a week to 10 days.
How To Protect Yourself Against E. Coli Infections
Here are a few tips to keep in mind to avoid/prevent an E.coli infection given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 
- Practice proper hygiene, especially good hand washing. Wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom, changing diapers, and before preparing or eating food.
- Wash your hands after any contact with animals or pets at home.
- Always wash your hands before preparing and feeding bottles or foods to an infant, before touching an infant’s mouth, and before touching pacifiers or other things that go into an infant’s mouth.
- If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. However, they are not a substitute for washing with soap and running water.
- Cook meats thoroughly. Ground beef and meat that has been needle-tenderized should be cooked to a temperature of at least 160°F (70˚C). Use a thermometer to verify the temperature, as the color is not a very reliable indicator of how thoroughly meat has been cooked.
- Prevent cross-contamination in food preparation areas by thoroughly washing hands, counters, cutting boards, and utensils after they touch raw meat.
- Avoid consuming raw milk, unpasteurized dairy products, and unpasteurized juices (like fresh apple cider).
- Avoid swallowing water when swimming in lakes, ponds, streams, swimming pools, and backyard pools.
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