You have probably heard about E. coli. It has given meat, fruit, and veggies some pretty bad press. E. coli is actually Escherichia coli. But no one can pronounce Escherichia, so everyone just calls it E. for short. Now that we’re on first name terms with this little bacteria, let’s get a little more up close and personal. (But not too close…)
The most common type of E. coli bacteria that can cause food-borne illness in people is the shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC). It is also called verocytotoxic E. coli (VTEC) or enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC). The strain of STEC known as O157:H7 (usually just called O157) is the most common cause of E. coli food borne illness.
Because STEC lives in the intestines, it is shed in the feces. Anything that has contact with animal or human feces that is infected with STEC could carry the bacteria. Poor hygiene is a common cause of STEC infection. The most common sources of infection with STEC are contaminated food (meat or produce) or water, raw milk, direct contact with animals (even at a petting zoo), or direct contact with infected people.
Symptoms of STEC food poisoning are similar to other types of food poisoning – severe abdominal cramps, diarrhea (often with blood), nausea, and vomiting. People with STEC food poisoning usually do not have a fever. These symptoms usually begin within 3-4 days of eating contaminated food, but it can start as soon as 1 day or as long as 10 days later. Most people get better with rest and fluids within 5-7 days. With severe diarrhea, some people may need to be hospitalized for complications associated with diarrhea (like dehydration).
Some people (5-10%) may develop a complication called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS). HUS occurs with the STEC bacteria damage the kidneys. Signs of HUS typically start around 7 days after the diarrhea begins. Signs of HUS can include decreased urination, feeling very tired, and becoming pale. Anyone experiencing these symptoms needs to be hospitalized for treatment. Most people do recover from HUS without any side effects, but it can be life-threatening in some cases.
As with other food-borne illnesses, young children, older adults, pregnant women, and anyone with a compromised immune system are at the highest risk for becoming infected with STEC. Young children and older adults are also at a higher risk of developing HUS.
Another type of E. coli that can cause disease in people is enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC). ETEC is common in underdeveloped countries and is a common cause of travelers’ diarrhea. Eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water can lead to an ETEC infection. ETEC infections have similar symptoms as STEC infections, but it is not a common cause of food poisoning in the United States.
E. coli Prevention
It is possible to reduce your family’s risk of becoming sick from E. coli with a few easy at-home practices.
- Practice good personal hygiene. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water after using the bathroom and before preparing food. Wash again after touching any raw meat.
- Wash your hands after handling animals, especially livestock (cows, sheep, and goats).
- Wash all produce before preparing it (except bagged, pre-washed produce).
- Use a food thermometer to know when meats are fully cooked.
- Avoid raw milk, unpasteurized apple cider, or cheeses made with raw milk.
- Avoid drinking untreated water, such as water in lakes, streams, public pools, or backyard kiddie pools.
- Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meats, produce, and cooked foods to avoid cross-contamination.
- Perishable foods should not be kept at room temperature for longer than 2 hours.
Remember, signs of E. coli food poisoning don’t start to show until 5-7 days after the contaminated food was eaten. It can be difficult to pinpoint the food that was contaminated with E. coli to make you sick. Call a doctor if anyone in your family has diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, vomiting, or any other signs that you think might be food poisoning.