That big, juicy burger looked delicious and it was cooked just the way Jon liked — charred on the outside, pink in the middle. But a couple of days later, Jon found himself in the bathroom with a bad case of diarrhea. That yummy burger, unfortunately, came with a side of E. coli bacteria.
Infections due to Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria can cause severe, bloody diarrhea. Some cases can lead to serious health problems. Fortunately, most healthy people who get the infection don't develop serious problems and recover on their own without needing treatment.
Some strains of E. coli naturally live in our intestines and are usually harmless. Others, like E. coli O157:H7, spread through contaminated food or water, or from other infected people or animals, and can cause problems.
Most often, E. coli is transmitted when someone eats food containing the bacteria. At-risk foods include:
The bacteria also can spread from person to person on unwashed hands and surfaces, by swimming in contaminated water, and from touching animals at farms or petting zoos.
Some types of E. coli bacteria make a toxin (a poisonous substance) that can damage the lining of the small intestine. This can lead to bad stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea (often with blood in it). When that happens, people can get dehydrated.
Symptoms usually start 3-4 days after a person has come into contact with the bacteria and end within about a week. An infection is contagious for at least as long as the person has diarrhea, and sometimes longer.
Most people recover completely, although some develop a serious kidney and blood problem called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Signs of HUS include:
HUS can be life threatening and requires treatment in a hospital.
Call your doctor if you have any symptoms of an E. coli infection, especially stomach pain or persistent, severe, or bloody diarrhea.
Call immediately if you see signs of dehydration, such as decreased urination, or of hemolytic uremic syndrome, especially if you've had a recent gastrointestinal illness.
If you think you have an infection, your doctor might take a stool sample to look for E. coli bacteria. Your doctor's office may order a blood test to check for possible complications.
Some things to know about treating E. coli infections:
Someone who becomes dehydrated might need to be hospitalized to get IV fluids, and those with HUS may require dialysis for kidney failure and/or blood transfusions.
While recovering from an infection, you can go back to your normal activities after two stool cultures are free of the bacteria. Don't use swimming pools or water slides until 2 weeks after your symptoms have gone away.
E. coli outbreaks have been traced to a wide variety of foods, including fresh spinach, hamburgers, ground beef, bologna, hazelnuts, packaged cheeses, shredded lettuce, and prepackaged cookie dough.
Practicing safe food preparation is a key step in protecting yourself from an E. coli infection:
Don't forget the importance of hand washing. Wash your hands often and well, especially after going to the bathroom, touching animals, coming in from outside, and before eating or preparing food. Avoid swallowing water while swimming.
Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: July 2014
|Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The CDC (the national public health institute of the United States) promotes health and quality of life by preventing and controlling disease, injury, and disability.|
|U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) The FDA is responsible for protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, our nation's food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.|
|U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) The USDA works to enhance the quality of life for people by supporting the production of agriculture.|
|Hand Washing Did you know that the most important thing you can do to keep from getting sick is to wash your hands? If you don't wash your hands frequently, you can pick up germs from other sources and then infect yourself.|
|Food Poisoning The germs that get into food and cause food poisoning are tiny, but can have a powerful effect on the body. Find out what to do if you get food poisoning - and how to prevent it.|
|Food Safety Learn why food safety is important and how you can avoid the spread of bacteria when you are buying, preparing, and storing food.|
|Shigellosis Shigellosis is an intestinal infection caused by bacteria that can give a person bloody diarrhea and cause intestinal pain. Good hand washing is the best way to prevent shigellosis.|
|Why Should I Care About Germs? Germs are tiny organisms that can cause disease - and they're so small that they can creep into your system without you noticing. Find out how to protect yourself.|
|Gastrointestinal Infections and Diarrhea Nearly everybody gets diarrhea every once in a while, and it's usually caused by gastrointestinal infections. It's nothing to be embarrassed about. Read this article to learn more.|
|Salmonellosis People often think of salmonellosis as food poisoning, but food is only one way the bacteria Salmonella can be spread.|
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