Many people have heard the term E.coli in the news when an outbreak occurs. But the truth is, we are surrounded by E. Coli in our environment — and many of these bacteria don’t make us sick at all. A problem arises when certain types of E. coli infect people through contaminated water, food, or contact with infected people or animals.
How do people get E. coli?
When people get sick from E. coli, it is because they picked up the dangerous kind of E. coli somewhere. Unfortunately, it’s often not known when or how people got it, unless they are involved in a large outbreak that is traced by health authorities.
Certain foods put you at higher risk of getting it, including raw milk, soft cheeses made from raw (unpasteurized) milk, sprouts, and unpasteurized juices. But even if you didn’t eat any of these things, you can get it by being in contact with a person or animal that is infected with the bacteria. In addition, you can get it by swallowing contaminated water, such as in a lake or public swimming area. Because of our water treatment systems in the U.S., getting it from drinking contaminated tap water is not common.
What are the symptoms?
Diarrhea is the most common symptom, so mild cases may often be mistaken as a simple stomach virus and clear on their own. In more severe cases, people can get bloody diarrhea and a serious complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, which results in kidney failure and can be life-threatening.
If you think you or a family member has been infected, watch for bloody diarrhea, decreased urination, weakness, and loss of pink color in the cheeks or around the eyes. If you notice any of these symptoms, seek emergency medical care.
Avoiding E. coli
Although there is no surefire way to prevent all E. coli infections, there are some things you can do to minimize your risk. They include:
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before eating and after using the bathroom.
- Take care when handling raw meat. Wash all surfaces that touch the meat with hot, soapy water and/or bleach. Wash your hands after touching it. Keep raw meat separate from other foods and cook it thoroughly to the minimum safe temperature.
- Do not consume unpasteurized dairy, cheese, or juices.
- Wash all raw fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them.
- Drink only safe drinking water. If you travel to other countries where the water isn’t properly treated, drink only bottled water and don’t use ice.
Most people who get infected with E. coli will recover without complications. But people with weakened immune systems, as well as infants and the elderly, are at an increased risk of problems. Practice safe food handling and good hand washing as outlined above, and you’ll minimize any chance of getting it.
CarePoint Health Primary Care
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Content on our website is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, please call 911. Always consult your physician before making any changes to your medical treatment.