All too often, it seems, the news reports contain stories about a salad or hamburger manufacturer having to recall its lettuce or beef (or other foods) due to an E. coli contamination.
So, what exactly is E. coli? Short for Escherichia coli, these bacteria are found in the intestines of healthy people and animals. Most types of E. coli are harmless. However, certain varieties can make you violently ill and may even be fatal.
The most common of these bad strains are Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) known as E. coli 0157:H7. This is the type of E. coli usually responsible for outbreaks we hear about on the news. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are approximately 265,000 of these infections, of which 3,600 people are hospitalized and 30 die each year.
Symptoms and Complications
Severe abdominal cramps, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, dehydration, fever, confusion, seizures, acute kidney failure are all possible with an E. coli infection – sometimes referred to generically as food poisoning.
For most people, symptoms resolve on their own within a week to 10 days. However, among the young, old, and those with compromised immune systems, an untreated E. coli infection can lead to acute kidney failure (hemolytic uremic syndrome).
How E. Coli Can Spread
- coli is spread by fecal-oral contamination. That is, when small particles of fecal matter contaminated with the bad strains of E. coli bacteria are transferred to food or water, which are then consumed.
It is very easy to come into contact with E. coli-contaminated food or water – especially in raw vegetables, undercooked meat, and unpasteurized products. Heat can kill the E. coli bacteria, so it is typically food or drink that hasn’t been properly heated through that can transmit E. coli to the unsuspecting consumer. Contamination can occur during food processing (in the home or at a plant or slaughterhouse) or consumption – for example, fruits and vegetables washed with E. coli-contaminated water can spread the bacteria.
Making it even harder to detect is the fact that bad strains of E. coli are odorless, tasteless, and invisible to the naked eye.
Even swimming pools can become contaminated with E. coli should feces inadvertently be released in the water. This can happen when young children have a bowel movement in the water, someone with diarrhea enters the water, or anyone fails to wash off traces of fecal contamination anywhere on their bodies. Public swimming pools have been the source of E. coli outbreaks, which is why all those entering the pool should abide by those “shower before entering the water” signs.
To fight the spread of E. coli, it is important to wash your hands after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, before and after preparing food, and after handling animals.
Treating E. Coli Infections
There is no cure for an E. coli infection. For most people, getting adequate rest to help their immune system fight the infection can help. Fluid replenishment is important as well, as much water can be lost through vomiting and diarrhea.
Medication that treats diarrhea is typically discouraged because it may delay your body’s ability to eliminate the toxin. Those who develop kidney complications as a result of an E. coli infection will likely need to be hospitalized.
If you or someone you love has come into contact with E. coli-contaminated food or water and is suffering from it, seek medical care. For some people, an E. coli infection can pass relatively painlessly but for others the effects may last a lifetime. Contact the medical professionals at Carlisle Digestive Disease Associates immediately if you suspect E. coli food poisoning. Just call (717) 245-2228 or use the convenient appointment request form.