Types of Food Poisoning: E. Coli

E. coli is the most common term used for Escherichia coli O157:H7, a strain of the bacterium Escherichia coli. It is one of the primary causes of food poisoning. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that each year in the US, 73,000 people get infected and 61 people die because of E. coli.

E. coli infection usually causes diarrhea and bloody stools, and most healthy adults recover within a week. However, there are those who may develop Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), a form of kidney failure. Children and older people are more susceptible to HUS, which could lead to serious damage to kidneys or even death.

To avoid infection, people are advised to:

  • Thoroughly cook ground beef
  • Avoid unpasteurized milk
  • Wash hands carefully before preparing or eating food
  • Wash fruits and vegetables well, but washing may not remove all contamination

You may get more information on which foods to avoid if there is an outbreak of E. coli from public service announcements.

What is Escherichia coli O157:H7?

Most Escherichia coli strains are harmless and actually live in the intestines of normal healthy people and animals, but the strain Escherichia coli O157:H7 is one that produces toxins that could cause severe problems to a person’s health, causing diarrhea or even kidney failure.

E. coli O157:H7 was discovered in 1982 as a cause of illness. During that time, the outbreak came from contaminated hamburgers.

How is E. coli O157:H7 spread?

E. coli can be found in most places with live animals, especially cattle farms and petting zoos. This bacterium can live in the intestines of sheep, deer, cattle and goats and meat may be contaminated during the slaughter process. If the bacterium is present in a cow’s udder or other equipment involved in milking cows, raw unpasteurized milk may be contaminated. In petting zoos, railings, the ground, feed bins and animal furs may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

One can get infected by eating meat that has not been cooked enough to kill E. coli O157:H7. There is no obvious sign that a naked eye can detect or the nose can smell in order to tell if the meat is contaminated by E. coli O157:H7.

Consumption of the following, if contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, may also cause infection:

  • Lettuce
  • Salami
  • Spinach
  • Sprouts
  • Unpasteurized milk and juice

Swimming in or drinking sewage water contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 can also cause infection.

The bacteria can be spread if proper hygiene is not practiced, such as not washing hands after going to the bathroom. If a toddler who is not toilet-trained is infected, playmates and other family members may get infected.

What illness does E. coli O157:H7 cause?

E. coli O157:H7 usually causes people to become sick for 2 to 8 days from exposure. E. coli O157:H7 often causes severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. There are also times when the diarrhea is not severe not bloody, and others who are infected may not experience any symptom at all. Sometimes there is a slight fever that goes away after 5 to 10 days.

There are special complications to which the elderly and children under 5 years of age are more vulnerable. Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), in which red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail, may develop in these group if they get infected with E. coli O157:H7. Most cases of HUS are caused by E. coli O157:H7.

Diagnosing E. coli O157:H7

E. coli O157:H7 infection may be diagnosed through fecal analysis or testing of the stool

Treating Illnesses caused by E. coli O157:H7

A lot of people can recover from E. coli O157:H7 infection without the use of antibiotics or other medical treatment. Usually, rehydration and a lot of rest would suffice. It is advisable to avoid antidiarrheal medicines should be avoided.

Those who develop HUS because of E. coli O157:H7 are usually treated in the intensive care unit because of the severity of the condition.

Long-Term Consequences of E. coli O157:H7 Infection

Those whose only symptom was diarrhea will more likely fully recover without any long-term damage to their health. However, those with HUS may possibly have other complications or lifelong injury caused by the disease. HUS may cause paralysis, blindness, persistent kidney failure and others.

Preventing E. coli O157:H7 Infection

E. coli O157:H7 infection can be avoided by following these tips:

  • Avoid cross-contamination of foods – Uncooked meats should be kept separate from produce, cooked foods, and ready-to-eat foods. Wash hands, cutting boards, counters, knives, and other utensils thorough after handling uncooked foods. Wash your hands before and after handling any food item and between handling different food items.
  • Cook all meat and poultry well; make sure that your meat is cooked thoroughly; make sure that hamburgers are not pink in the middle.
  • Do not consume raw or unpasteurized milk, dairy products or fresh juices.
  • Do not eat raw or undercooked eggs, poultry, or meat – some people may not realize that raw eggs may be present in different foods such as hollandaise sauce, Caesar and other homemade salad dressings, tiramisu, homemade ice cream, homemade mayonnaise, cookie dough, and frostings.
  • Infected people should not prepare food or pour water for others until they are shown to no longer carry Salmonella.
  • Wash produce thoroughly before consuming.
  • Wash your hands after contact with animal feces. Wash your hands after handling reptiles and turtles. These are not appropriate pets for small children and should not be in the same house as an infant.

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