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E. Coli Infection

What is an E. coli infection?

An E. coli infection is food poisoning caused by some types of E. coli bacteria. The effects of an E. coli Infection can range from mild symptoms to severe, life-threatening illness.

How does it occur?

There are many harmless types of E. coli bacteria. However, some types, such as one called O157:H7, make a strong poison that can make you very sick. The bacteria live in the guts of cattle. The bacteria can get into meat when the cattle are killed and the meat is processed. The bacteria may also get into a cow's milk. The bacteria can live in other animals as well. The bacteria can also be spread from manure, which may be used as a fertilizer on or near crops.

Eating meat that has not been cooked long enough to kill E. coli can cause infection. This is especially true for ground beef. You usually cannot tell by smelling or looking at the meat if it is contaminated.

Other possible sources of infection are:

  • alfalfa sprouts
  • leafy vegetables, such as lettuce and spinach
  • salami
  • raw, unpasteurized milk, unpasteurized juice, and soft cheeses made from raw milk
  • contaminated water.

People who are infected have the bacteria in their bowel movements. The bacteria can spread from one person to another if an infected person does not carefully wash their hands after using the bathroom. Adults who care for toddlers in diapers or for children who are not toilet trained are at high risk of getting the infection. These children's playmates may also get the infection.

You might get infected by swallowing unchlorinated or underchlorinated water in swimming pools. You can also get infected by swimming in water that has sewage in it.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • nausea
  • severe cramps in your belly
  • watery or bloody diarrhea
  • tiredness
  • vomiting
  • mild fever (99 to 100.5° F, or 37 to 38° C).

Symptoms usually begin 2 to 5 days after eating contaminated food, but anywhere from 1 to 7 days is normal. The symptoms may last for several days.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and examine you. A sample of your bowel movement will be tested in the lab.

How is it treated?

Usually you can get better without medical treatment. Antibiotics are usually not prescribed.

Ask your healthcare provider if medicines to stop the diarrhea are a good idea in your case.

You need to replace the fluids and body chemicals you lose when you have diarrhea or vomiting. Your healthcare provider may advise you to drink plenty of clear fluids or to drink an oral rehydration solution.

How long will the effects last?

Most people get better in 5 to 10 days without medical treatment.

Rarely, a serious complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome can happen. It can cause kidney failure, especially in children. This life-threatening condition is usually treated in an intensive care unit of a hospital, sometimes with blood transfusions and temporary kidney dialysis.

How can I take care of myself?

If you have been diagnosed with E. coli infection, follow your healthcare provider’s instructions. Here are some things you can do to take care of yourself at home while you recover:

  • For stomach pain or cramps, it may help to put a hot water bottle or electric heating pad on your stomach. Cover the hot water bottle with a towel or set the heating pad on low to prevent burns.
  • Do not take aspirin, ibuprofen, or other NSAID pain relievers without checking first with your healthcare provider. It's OK to take acetaminophen (Tylenol).
    • Check with your provider before you give any medicine that contains aspirin or salicylates to a child or teen. This includes medicines like baby aspirin, some cold medicines, and Pepto-Bismol. Children and teens who take aspirin are at risk for a serious illness called Reye's syndrome.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not take for more than 10 days for any reason.
  • For diarrhea, you may want to let your bowel rest for several hours by drinking only clear liquids. Examples of clear liquids are water, weak tea, broth, apple juice, or sports drinks and other oral rehydration drinks. You may also drink soft drinks without caffeine, such as 7 UP. Let sodas lose some of their carbonation (go flat) before you drink them. Make sure you drink small amounts often so that you do not get dehydrated. Not getting enough fluids to replace the fluids your body is losing while you are sick can be very dangerous. This is especially true for children, older adults, and some people who have other medical problems. Suck on ice chips or Popsicles if you feel too nauseated to drink fluids.
  • When your symptoms are better, add soft starchy foods to your diet. Foods that are easiest to digest are bananas, cooked cereal, rice, plain noodles, eggs, gelatin, toast or bread, crackers, cooked potatoes or carrots, and applesauce. Don’t add butter or margarine to these foods. Avoid milk products and caffeine for a few days.
  • You can go back to your normal diet after 2 or 3 days, but for several days avoid fresh fruit (other than bananas), alcohol, greasy or fatty foods such as cheeseburgers or bacon, or highly seasoned or spicy foods. Also avoid most fresh vegetables. It’s OK to eat cooked carrots, potatoes, and squash. If eating seems to make the diarrhea worse, let your bowel rest for a few hours by drinking just clear liquids. Then again try small amounts of the foods that are easy to digest.
  • Be cautious about taking antidiarrheal medicines. Nonprescription medicines such as loperamide (sold as Imodium and other trade names) or the prescription medicine Lomotil can make you sicker, especially if your diarrhea is bloody. If you take one of these medicines, make sure you use only the dose recommended on the package. If you have chronic health problems, check with your healthcare provider before you use any medicine for diarrhea.
  • If you keep having symptoms or your symptoms get worse, call your healthcare provider.

How can I help prevent E. coli infection?

  • Wash your hands well before you start any food preparation.
  • Cook all meat thoroughly. Ground beef can turn brown during cooking before bacteria in the meat are killed. Use a meat thermometer to make sure meat is cooked enough to kill bacteria. Ground beef should be cooked until a thermometer inserted into several parts of the patty reads at least 160°F (71°C).
  • Do not eat ground beef patties that are still pink in the middle. If you are served an undercooked hamburger in a restaurant, send it back for further cooking. Ask for a new bun and a clean plate, too.
  • Keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods. Wash hands, counters, and utensils with hot soapy water after contact with raw meat. Never put cooked hamburgers or ground beef on an unwashed plate that held raw patties.
  • Drink only pasteurized milk, juice, or cider.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables well, especially if you are eating them raw. Children less than 5 years old, people with weakened immune systems, and older adults should avoid eating alfalfa sprouts. There is no way to remove the bacteria from the sprouts.
  • Drink tap water that has been treated with chlorine or another disinfectant.
  • Do not swallow lake or pool water while swimming.
  • Teach children to wash their hands carefully with soap and water after using the toilet. Wash your hands after changing diapers.
Developed by RelayHealth, including material from the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-01-27
Last reviewed: 2011-01-03
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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