Escherichia coli commonly called E. coli for short, is a bacteria normally found in the intestines of healthy people and animals. Most type are harmless and only cause diarrhea. However, strains like the E. coli O157: H7 are dangerous and can lead to severe abdominal cramps, vomiting and bloody diarrhea. Exposure to E. coli may be from consumption of contaminated food such as raw vegetables and undercooked meat, and water.
Symptoms of E. coli infection
The signs and symptoms of E. coli O157:H7 infection usually begins 3 to 4 days after exposure but in some cases, symptoms can be seen a day after exposure or a week later. The signs and symptoms are as follows:
- Diarrhea which may range from mild and watery to severe and bloody
- Cramping or pain in the abdomen
- Nausea and vomiting
If you are experiencing continous, bloody or severe diarrhea, see your doctor immediately.
Causes and Risk Factors
The cause of E. coli infection is ingestion of a particular strain of the bacteria that produces a powerful toxin that can destroy the small intestine lining. This results in bloody diarrhea. Potential sources of exposure include contaminated food & water, and contact with an infected person.
The most common way that a person acquires an E. coli infection is through the intake of contaminated food like:
- Unpasteurized Milk– the bacteria on a cow’s udder or on equipment for milking can get into the raw milk which is the reason milk needs to be treated.
- Ground Beef– The E. coli bacteria normally found in intestines of cow can get on the meat. Ground beef is the combination of meat from different animals which considerably increases the risk of contamination.
- Fresh Produce– stools from cattle farms and other animals can contaminate fields where fresh produce is grown. Some vegetables like lettuce and spinach are more exposed to this form of contamination. It is advisable to wash them properly before consumption.
Humans and animal feces can reach surface water including rivers and streams. The water can also be used to irrigate crops. Many outbreaks have been connected to contaminated water supplies. Rural water supplies are also more likely to be polluted. Infections can also be gotten from swimming in contaminated pools or lakes.
- coli bacteria can also be gotten from personal contact especially when infected individuals do not wash their hands properly. Other family members of young children with this type of infection are most likely to acquire it themselves. Petting zoos and animal barns can also cause epidemics.
- coli infection can affect anyone exposed to the bacteria, but some people are more likely to develop problems as a result of the following risk factors:
- Those with weakened immune systems– People with a weakened immune system from medication or health conditions such as HIV/AIDS, are more likely to become ill from the ingestion of the bacteria.
- Age– Young children and older adults are vulnerable too.
- Eating certain types of food– Eating undercooked ground beef, unpasteurized milk and soft cheeses made from raw milk.
- Time of year– Majority of E. coli infection in the US occur between June and September, the reason for this is vague.
Tests and Diagnosis
A fecalysis is required to diagnose E. coli infection, which tests for the presence of the bacteria. It may be cultured for confirmation of the diagnosis and to identify the specific toxins like those that are produced by the E. coli O157: H7.
Treatments and Drugs
For illnesses due to E. coli infection, there are no current treatments for curing the infection, relieve symptoms of prevent complications. For most individuals, the treatment includes the following:
- Fluids for preventing fatigue and dehydration
Avoid taking anti-diarrheal medication because this slows down the digestive system preventing the elimination of toxins. Antibiotics are generally not used because these increases the risk of complications. For E. coli infection that has resulted to haemolytic uremic syndrome, hospitalization and supportive care is needed.
Precautions and Self Care
- Drink plenty of clear fluids including water, broths and juices.
- Avoid risky foods by cooking hamburgers well. There should be no pink showing in the meat but color is not always a reliable indicator whether the meat is completely cooked.
- Drink only pasteurized milk, juice and cider. Also, wash raw produce very thoroughly to get rid of any E. coli that can attach in certain spots.
- Avoid cross-contamination.
- Wash utensils carefully using hot soapy water especially on knives, cutting boards and countertops before and after coming into contact with raw meat or fresh produce. Raw foods should always be kept separate with separate cutting boards and knives for raw meat, fruits and vegetables. Never use the same plate for cooked and raw meat. Wash your hands before and after handling food.