Many different types of good bacteria are needed by your body in order to help it work properly. Some of these bacteria help you digest food, fight off illness and keep your skin clean, but other kinds of bacteria can make you sick. One of these is E. coli.
What is E. coli? E. coli, or Escherichia coli is a rod-shaped bacteria that is normally present in the lower intestine of humans and warm-blooded animals.
There are hundreds of different types, (called strains) of E. coli. Some of these strains are harmless and others can be harmful. Non-pathogenic, or harmless strains of E. coli are a part of the normal flora of the lower intestine, are responsible for producing Vitamin K2 and help to prevent establishment of bad bacteria inside the intestine. E. coli also helps the body break down and digest the food you eat.
Symptoms of an E. coli Infection
If E. coli gets out of the intestine andcontaminates food or water, even non-pathogenic E. coli can cause you to feel sick. Some E. coli strains can cause poisoning and severe diarrhea.
An E. coli infection can be dangerous and sometimes life-threatening.
E. coli can cause bladder and kidney infections or sepsis (blood poisoning), if they get into the blood. Other serious complications from an E. coli infection include low red blood cell count, low platelet count and kidney damage.
Symptoms are worse in children and the elderly, and also with people who have other illnesses.
Symptoms from an E. coli infection start suddenly with severe cramping. A few hours later, watery diarrhea starts causing your body to lose fluid and electrolytes, and making you feel very sick and tired.
The diarrhea lasts about a day and then changes to bright red bloody stools because the infection creates sores in your intestines. E. coli is the leading cause of bloody diarrhea. The bloody diarrhea lasts from 2 to 5 days. You may have a fever, feel nauseated and you may vomit.
If you have any of these symptoms, get to your doctor right away. Diagnosis is made by stool culture, which has to be taken within 48 hours of the bloody diarrhea starts.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, estimates are that there are up to 20,400 cases of E. coli infection & 500 deaths from E. coli infection per year in the United States(1).
An E. coli infection normally runs its course in 5 to 7 days. There is no treatment except for watching that you don’t develop complications and drinking a lot of water. If dehydration is serious enough you may need fluids by IV. Don’t take any medicine to stop the diarrhea unless your doctor tells you to because the medicine stops your body from flushing out the toxins caused by an E. coli infection.
However some people, usually children or the elderly can develop severe symptoms that last longer than a week. These people may require hospitalization, and if not treated immediately, the infection can lead to disability or death.
How Do You Get an E. coli Infection?
Although E. coli is naturally present in your intestines, certain strains can get into foods like beef and vegetables and into drinking water through contamination with feces and that’s what can make you sick.
Most E. coli infections come from eating undercooked ground beef, (considered undercooked if it’s pink in the middle), drinking unpasteurized milk or contaminated water, eating contaminated vegetables, or working with cattle.
Healthy beef and dairy cattle may carry the E. coli bacteria in their intestines. The meat can get contaminated during the slaughtering process, and when the beef is ground up, E. coli gets mixed throughout the meat.
E. coli can be present on the cows udder, which may contaminate the milk with E. coli. The only way to kill these E. coli germs is through high heat, or pasteurization.
Drinking water can become contaminated by domestic sewage, feedlot runoff or other sources of pollution.
And, vegetables can become contaminated by fertilizing with cow manure or irrigating vegetable plots with contaminated water.
How to Avoid an E. coli Infection
Most E. coli infections can be avoided with a few simple food preparation precautions:
- Wash your hands carefully before preparing any food, particularly meat
- Cook ground beef to at least 155 F. and until there is no pink inside, and order only well-done hamburgers from a restaurant
- Defrost meat in the microwave or refrigerator rather than letting it sit on the counter to defrost. Keep raw meat separate from other foods when preparing. Use hot water and detergent on cutting boards if raw meats have touched them
- Wash vegetables before eating
- Don’t drink unpasteurized milk
- Have your well water tested
- Refrigerate leftovers right away or throw them out
E. coli can be passed from one person to another by touching with contaminated hands. Anyone with diarrhea should wash their hands often. Because the elderly and children are more severely affected, everyone working with children or the elderly should wash their hands thoroughly and often.
(1)Iowa State University Extension: Food Safety http://www.extension.iastate.edu/foodsafety/pathogens/index.cfm?articleID=41
Family Doctor: http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/digestive/disorders/242.html
Medical News Today: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/68511.php