What is E. coli?
Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a bacteria that has multiple strains. Some of those strains already live in our intestines and are harmless or even helpful. However, there are the bad strains of E. coli which are extremely harmful and dangerous.
The bad strains are called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, or STEC for short. STEC is the strain of E. coli most commonly associated with the foodborne outbreaks and intestinal sicknesses you hear about. This bacteria is poisonous to your body.
Why is STEC so dangerous?
Shiga-producing E. coli infect 265,000 people in the U.S. every year, causing foodborne illness, hospitalizations, and even death. The difference between STEC and other bacteria is that you can develop an infection after ingesting only a small amount of the contaminated substance.
Healthy individuals will commonly recover within a week, but young children, older adults, pregnant women and people with a weakened immune system have a greater risk of developing a life-threatening form of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). About 5-10% of people develop HUS after contracting E. coli.
What are the symptoms?
Typically a STEC infection will begin after three to four days after being exposed to the bacteria — with some exceptions. Often the symptoms include severe abdominal cramping resulting in pain and tenderness, diarrhea that can be bloody, nausea, and a mild fever.
Infected individuals should stay well hydrated, as dehydration is a big concern with this infection.
You should contact your healthcare provider in the following situations:
- If the diarrhea lasts more than three days or if it becomes bloody
- If you have a high fever
- If you are vomiting so much that you can’t keep liquids down
What causes contamination?
E. coli can spread in a few different ways. The most common way you get infected is by eating contaminated food, but contamination can also occur through interacting with infected people, drinking from rural water supplies, or even accidentally swallowing contaminated pool water. You only need to ingest a small amount of the bacteria to get infected.
How to prevent E. coli
The following are a few steps you can take to reduce or prevent E. coli:
- Cook food, especially beef and ground beef, to safe temperatures. Make sure you are using a thermometer to check the internal temperature of your food. Beef is one of the most common sources of E. coli. For ground beef, the recommended safe temperature is 155°F for at least 17 seconds.
- Always get your food from an approved supplier. If you work in a restaurant, deli, or other food establishment, make sure you only buy food from approved suppliers.
- Only cook with pasteurized foods. In the pasteurization process, foods are treated to eliminate pathogens. Choose pasteurized milk and juices to help reduce the risk of E. coli contamination.
- Keep your kitchen — and your hands — clean! You should keep your cooking area clean and sanitized, especially when handling animal products. Keep raw foods separate from your other foods. Make sure to be properly washing your hands and putting a brand new pair of gloves before working with a different food. Wash your hands before preparing food and before eating.
- Wash leafy greens. Leafy green vegetables are especially susceptible to E. coli contamination because they’re rarely cooked before they’re eaten. To help prevent E. coli, always wash your vegetables before consuming them.
Follow these steps and learn more tips for preventing E. coli and other foodborne illnesses in our food handlers course.
— Aileen Salazar