A petri dish containing e. coli bacteria
E. coli bacteria can spread during food production, which is why we hear about it from food recalls.

Everything You Need to Know About E. Coli

It seems like every week another news flash crawls across the TV screen detailing the latest outbreak of E. coli. Huge amounts of food are recalled, and the company makes a standard apology while promising the oversight will never happen again.

Although E. coli is a term used often enough to be easily recognizable, few people know the truth about what E. coli is, the problems it causes, and the proper precautions needed to reduce the symptoms.

Let's take a look at this bacteria, and what you should do if you get an E. coli infection.

E. Coli Facts

E. coli—short for Escherichia coli—often gets a bad reputation because you only hear about it in a negative light due to food recalls and sickness. This reputation may not be fair, though, because there is not just one type of E. coli. E. coli is the name for an entire group of bacteria.

Not only are many varieties of E. coli not harmful, but they can also help maintain good health and wellness. As a type of gut bacteria, E. coli is already living in the intestines of healthy people and many animals.

Other varieties of E. coli are unwanted and may trigger some mild distress in a person. These unwanted variations of E. coli cause a brief period of abdominal discomfort or diarrhea, but they quickly resolve with no additional damage.

Then they are very harmful strains of E. coli. One particularly hazardous form of E. coli is called E. coli O157:H7, which can result in an E. coli infection called E. coli poisoning.

The Signs and Symptoms of an E. Coli Infection

When a person is exposed to a dangerous strain of E. coli, it is only a matter of time before the infection creates problematic signs and symptoms. The expected effects of E. coli poisoning include:

  • Diarrhea, which could be short-term and mild, or long-term and extreme with a bloody discharge
  • Stomach pain and tenderness
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

The powerful strains of E. coli, like O157:H7, are incredibly damaging because of their ability to create a certain toxin in the body. This toxin will attack the lining of a person’s small intestine and cause bloody diarrhea.

With the extent of the diarrhea and vomiting, people with E. coli infections frequently become very dehydrated and suffer an imbalance of electrolytes. These effects can be deadly if left untreated.

E. Coli Poisoning Causes

As a bacterial infection, E. coli is easily distributed to others. Only a small amount of E. coli can result in a serious infection.

E. coli commonly spread in three ways:

  1. Contaminated foods
  2. Contaminated water
  3. Personal contact with an infected person

Eating food contaminated with E. coli is the way most people acquire E. coli poisoning. Food becomes contaminated with E. coli when:

  • Bacteria from a cow’s intestine combines with the meat during the slaughtering process.
  • Bacteria from a cow’s udder gets into the milking equipment or directly into the milk.
  • Infected runoff from cattle farms can spread into the fields where fruits and vegetables grow.
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Drinking water becomes contaminated when human or animal feces pollutes rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and wells. Public waters systems have procedures in place to kill E. coli, but risks remain.

Swimming pools can be contaminated in the same way. Even if a person swallows only a small amount of water, E. coli poisoning is possible.

When someone in the household acquires an E. coli infection, it spreads quickly. It only requires a person inhaling a few droplets filled with bacteria to start a new infection.

E. Coli Risk Factors

Not everyone exposed to E. coli will experience E. coli poisoning. The people in the greatest danger of the infection are those with many E. coli risk factors, including:

  • Age: Younger people and older adults are more likely than others to become infected.
  • Compromised immune systems.
  • Eating foods linked to E. coli like hamburger, apple cider, and unpasteurized milk.
  • Lower stomach acids levels from using antacid medications.

Taking steps to prevent contamination and lower your risk factors can reduce the chances that you or a loved one will acquire E. coli poisoning.

E. Coli Diagnosis and Treatment

If you suspect you have E. coli, a medical professional will send a stool sample for testing and confirm the diagnosis. Sadly, there is no current medication that can cure or shorten E. coli poisoning.

The only options for someone experiencing an E. coli infection are to get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. Always avoid using anti-diarrhea medications and antibiotics because they will be ineffective in treating E.coli.

Researchers and scientists are currently exploring possible vaccines that could prevent the risk of E. coli infection through an injection or pill. This technology may not exist for some time, though, so practicing care and prevention are still your best ways to avoid the discomfort and danger of E. coli.