With the recent outbreak of Escherichia coli (E. coli) from contaminated romaine lettuce, we’re reminded of just how serious an E. coli infection can be and how rapidly it can spread. An outbreak like this also tends to remind us just how unaware we are of what we should be looking for with E. coli and how to decipher whether we’ve been affected by this type of food poisoning.
Knowing the symptoms and causes of E. coli can help you prevent a potentially deadly infection and protect yourself from the bacteria. If you do happen to fall victim to an E. coli infection, spotting the signs and getting prompt medical attention can sometimes make the difference between life and death.
What Is E. Coli?
Escherichia coli, known as simply E. coli, is a type of bacteria that lives in the intestines of humans and animals. Most varieties of this bacteria are harmless and don’t cause upset in the body. Some strains, however, can be destructive and make the body sick.
The O157:H7 strain of E. coli is an example of a harmful strain that can cause severe symptoms in the body.
E. Coli Symptoms
While minor cases of food poisoning can cause an upset stomach and diarrhea, E. coli tends to bring on more severe symptoms, anywhere from one day after exposure to the bacteria to one week. Symptoms of an E. coli infection include:
- Bloody diarrhea
- Severe abdominal cramps, pain, and tenderness
- In some cases, nausea and vomiting
The unique aspect of an E. coli infection is that you can acquire the infection after merely having a small amount of contaminated food. Having a contaminated burger patty or swallowing a mouthful of contaminated water can cause E. coli.
E. Coli Causes
When the body does fall ill to harmful E. coli, it’s usually a result of contaminated food or water. Foods like raw vegetables or undercooked meat are usually the culprits when a case of food poisoning happens.
There are typically 3 causes of E. coli:
1. Contaminated Food
An E. coli infection can typically be acquired through contaminated foods like ground beef, unpasteurized milk, and raw vegetables. When cattle are killed and processed for consumers, there’s a chance that the E. coli bacteria in their intestines gets onto the meat. This is especially the case for ground beef, where the meat is often the product of multiple animals.
With unpasteurized milk, E. coli on the milking equipment or udders of the cow can contaminate the milk. Raw vegetables like lettuce and spinach are typically contaminated by runoff from cattle farms.
2. Contaminated Water
Human and animal feces can contaminate water, including streams, rivers, lakes, and the water used for farming.
While most water gets treated before consumption, there is still a possibility of obtaining an E. coli infection from contaminated tap water. The risk of consuming contaminated water is particularly greater for rural areas and water from private wells, as the water is typically not treated and cleaned the way public water systems do.
Some people have even acquired E. coli after swimming in pools and lakes that have been infected by the bacteria.
3. Contact with an Infected Individual
It’s very easy to acquire E. coli from person to person when hands are not washed properly. Whether it’s a child who didn’t wash their hands properly and spread it to a family member, or a restaurant employee who didn’t wash their hands before preparing a meal, it’s highly possible to obtain E. coli from another person.
For most cases of E. coli, there is no specific treatment offered other than plenty of rest and staying hydrated. To diagnose an E. coli infection, your doctor will typically obtain a stool sample and send it to off to test for traces of the bacteria.
Getting medical attention for E. coli is important in the case that your infection has become severe enough to cause hemolytic uremic syndrome, a life-threatening type of kidney failure. In this case, you’ll often be hospitalized and given blood transfusions, IV fluids, and dialysis.
While there are no vaccines to prevent an E. coli infection, there are some preventative measures you can take to reduce the risk of acquiring E. coli, including:
- Always wash your hands well with hot, soapy water
- Wash fresh produce thoroughly
- Cook ground beef to at least 160°F
- Avoid cross-contamination between raw food and meats (i.e. keep cutting board for veggies separate from cutting board for meat)
- Drink pasteurized milk, juice, and cider
While most healthy adults recover from an E. coli infection within a week, some people are more prone to suffering from severe cases of E. coli or even acquiring the infection in the first place. Risk factors for getting E. coli include:
- Young children and the elderly
- People with weakened immune systems
- People eating certain types of food (mainly, unpasteurized foods — milk, soft cheeses, etc.)
If you are concerned about your food poisoning symptoms, you should speak with your doctor and get a professional diagnosis. Your doctor will be able to help you figure out the best treatment plan for you and whether he or she thinks you need further supportive care at the hospital.