E. Coli Infection: Top 3 Ways You Can Get & How to Prevent It
Contaminated water, food, and infected persons or animals can spread E. coli infection. Practicing safe food behaviors can reduce risk.
What is E. coli?
E. coli is a type of bacteria that is naturally present in the lower intestine of humans and animals. Most strains cause no harm to the host; however, certain strains can cause a few bouts of diarrhea.
But some strains including E. coli O157:H7 can cause severe vomiting, stomach cramps, and blood in the stools. Collectively, these bacteria are called Shiga toxin–producing E. coli (STEC).
In very severe cases, these bacteria can cause bleeding, mental confusion, and seizures.
While many of us know E. coli as the chief cause of food poisoning, the different strains of the bacteria can also cause other conditions such as pneumonia and urinary tract infection (UTI).
You can get STEC by eating contaminated foods such as uncooked or undercooked meat products, raw vegetables, and sprouts, and drinking unpasteurized milk.
STEC are highly adaptive microorganisms and can grow in a wide temperature range, from 45°F to 122°F. However, the optimal temperature for their growth of STEC is 98.6°F. Certain types of STEC can also grow in acidic conditions with pH as low as 4.4. This is why STEC may be present in acidic foods as well.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cooking foods at 158°F or higher destroys most types of STEC provided all the parts of the food reach this temperature.
E. coli Food Poisoning Signs and Symptoms
The symptoms of E. coli poisoning typically appear within 1 to 10 days after the bacteria have entered the body.
The common symptoms include:
- Stomach cramps
- Sudden, severe diarrhea with a water-like consistency that might lead to bloody stools
- Abdominal bloating
- Reduced appetite
- Physical weakness
- Rarely, some people can have several bouts of vomiting.
These E. coli symptoms usually clear within a few days to a week without any specific treatment.
Nonetheless, some persons with severe infection especially young children and the elderly can have one or more of the following signs and symptoms.
- Blood in the urine
- Decreased urine volume or frequency
- Yellowish skin
- Severe dehydration
Anyone with the symptoms of a severe infection should talk to their doctor right away.
In 1 out of every 10 patients, STEC infection can progress to HUS and 3 to 5 percent of patients with HUS are likely to die due to the complications.
Young children are particularly more vulnerable to developing HUS and subsequent acute kidney failure and coma. Nearly 50% of survivors continue to have problems with their kidneys even after the treatment.
Causes of E. coli Infection: Watch What You Eat, Drink and Touch
E. coli bacteria can enter into your body through several ways; the most common being consumption of contaminated foods, water, and milk.
Here are the common food sources of the bacteria.
1. Ground Meat
While any type of uncooked or undercooked meat can carry E. coli, ground meat is more likely to be contaminated because it is usually sourced from more than one animal.
2. Unpasteurized milk and milk products
Drinking untreated milk that has not been heated at high temperatures is one of the ways the bacteria can infect a person. Cheese prepared from untreated milk can also lead to an infection.
3. Vegetables and fruits
If you eat fresh vegetables or fruits washed with infected water, you will likely get an infection.
In addition to these common sources, infected animals and persons can also spread the disease. Interestingly, you might get the infection by swimming in a pool or lake that has contaminated water.
E. coli Treatment: Know Your Options
Most cases of E. coli infection resolve within a week with adequate water intake and enough rest. Meanwhile, it is important to take note of severe symptoms that warrant a medical attention.
If your kid has the infection, do not give them any medication without first consulting a pediatrician.
Likewise, you should not take over-the-counter medications to treat diarrhea before talking to your doctor. These medications called OTC antidiarrheals can slow down the downward movement of the intestines and lead to the accumulation of bacteria in the gut.
The use of antibiotics is not clear. While antibiotics can help shorten the duration of illness in certain types of E. coli infections, they should not be used in Shiga toxin-producing E. coli.
Make sure to take low-fiber foods such as crackers, toast, and rice during the first few days after the symptoms become less severe. However, do not take high-fiber or high-fat foods as they can worsen diarrhea and bloating.
E. coli Complications You Should Not Ignore
About 10 percent of persons with STEC develop some kinds of complications. These include:
Persistent loss of blood in the stools can lead to anemia. Moreover, it can also cause severe stomach cramps and dehydration.
Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS)
HUS is a leading cause of kidney failure in young children. It is usually detected seven to ten days after the early symptoms have appeared. Experts suggest the use of antibiotics in certain E. coli infections can make them more prone to develop HUS.
Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP)
TTP causes problems with blood clotting and can lead to bruises over the body. It is a variation of HUS, and is more common in elderly.
Pneumonia, Meningitis, and Sepsis
People with weakened immune systems such as those with chronic diseases or who take immnosuppressants can develop pneumonia, meningitis (inflammation of the brain coverings), and sepsis (E. coli in the bloodstream).
How Can You Prevent E. coli Infection?
Here are some simple yet highly effective ways to reduce the risk of E. coli infection.
Wash your hands often
Make sure to wash your hands properly before you prepare food and after you use the bathroom, touch raw meat and pets, and change your baby’s diaper.
Healthy Eating Habits
- Do not eat raw or improperly cooked eggs.
- Eat your fruits and vegetables only after washing them properly with clean water. If possible, peel them.
Cook the meats at correct temperatures.
Lastly, avoid swallowing water while swimming in a pool, a lake, or the ocean.
Interesting E. coli Facts
- coli is responsible for 75 to 95 percent of all cases of urinary tract infection (UTI).
- It is not found in the intestines of cold-blooded animals. However, it inhabits the intestinal tract of warm-blooded animals including humans, mammals, and birds.
- Newborns do not have E. coli in their intestines but get it within a few days. In fact, it is usually the first bacterium to colonize the human infant’s gut. Once present in the gut, it colonizes the gut for the lifetime of an adult.
- There are more than 700 types of E. coli.
- Shiga-toxin is one of the most potent bacterial toxins humans have ever discovered. In some people, it can cause a potentially life-threatening condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome or HUS. HUS causes severe anemia, blood-clotting problems, and can lead to kidney failure.
- Shiga-toxins are also responsible for causing bloody diarrhea during an E. coli infection.
- It is probably the most widely studied and best understood model organism.
- It can be beneficial too; researchers are working to produce butanol, an alternative to gasoline, using E. coli.