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E. Coli Infection

What is an E. Coli Infection?

Certain types of Escherichia coli bacteria, commonly called E. coli, can cause food borne illness.

Harmless strains of E. coli can be found widely in nature, including the intestinal tracts of humans and warm-blooded animals. Disease-causing strains, however, are a frequent cause of both intestinal and urinary-genital tract infections.

Several different strains of harmful E. coli can cause diarrhea disease. A particularly dangerous type is called enterohemorrhagic E. coli, or EHEC. EHEC often causes bloody diarrhea and can lead to kidney failure in children or people with weakened immune systems.

In 1982, scientists identified the first dangerous strain in the United States. The type of harmful E. coli most commonly found in this country is named O157:H7, which refers to chemical compounds found on the bacterium's surface. This type produces one or more related, powerful toxins which can severely damage the lining of the intestines.

Other types, including O26:H11 and O111:H8, also have been found in this country and can cause human disease.

Cattle are the main sources of E. coli O157:H7, but other domestic and wild mammals also can harbor these bacteria.

How is E. Coli Transmitted?

E. coli bacteria and its toxins have been found are transmitted to humans via:

  • Undercooked or raw hamburgers
  • Salami
  • Alfalfa sprouts
  • Lettuce
  • Un pasteurized milk, apple juice, and apple cider
  • Contaminated well water
  • Contaminated swimming pools
  • Contaminated oceans and lakes

Symptoms of E. Coli Infection

Symptoms of E. Coli infection usually begin 2 to 5 days after exposure. The symptoms may last for 8 days. Some common symptoms of infection with E. coli O157:H7 are:

  • Nausea
  • Severe abdominal cramps
  • Watery or very bloody diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Low grade fever

Other types of E. Coli Can Cause Diarrhea Disease

Enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC), which produce a toxin similar to Cholera toxin, can cause diarrhea. These strains typically cause so-called travelers diarrhea because they commonly contaminate food and water in developing countries.

Enteropathogenic E. coli (EPEC) are associated with persistent diarrhea (lasting 2 weeks or more) and are more common in developing countries where they can be transmitted by contaminated water or contact with infected animals. Health experts do not know how much disease some of these other types of E. coli cause in the United States.

How is an E. Coli Infection Diagnosed?

Your doctor will perform tests on your stool to see if you are infected with E. coli.

Can E. Coli Infections be Treated?

Most people infected with E. coli O157:H7, you will recover within 5 to 10 days without treatment. Antibiotics are usually not helpful, and health care experts recommend against taking antidiarrheal medicines.

Tips to Prevent E. Coli Infection

  • Eat only thoroughly cooked beef and beef products.
  • Cook ground beef patties to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Avoid unpasteurized juices.
  • Drink only pasteurized milk.

Wash fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating raw or cooked.

Complications of E. Coli

One of the most serious complications of an E. Coli infection is Hemolytic uremic syndrome. Hemolytic uremic syndrome is characterized by destruction of red blood cells, damage to the lining of blood vessel walls, and, in severe cases, kidney failure.

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