E. coli Infections. E. coli Bacteria

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1 E. coli Infections Introduction E. coli infections are caused by certain types of E. coli bacteria that make you sick. E. coli is short for Escherichia coli. Most E. coli infections get better without treatment. However, some E. coli infections may cause life-threatening complications. This reference summary will help you understand E. coli infections. It discusses causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. E. coli Bacteria What is E. coli? E. coli is a type of bacteria. Some types of E. coli are harmless and live in the intestines without causing any problems. However, other types of E. coli can make you sick. The more serious strains of E. coli release a poisonous substance known as toxins. The toxins released by E. coli damage the intestines and cause inflammation. Inflammation is the immune system s normal response to injury or contaminants. Germs, bacteria, and viruses are contaminants and can cause inflammation. This can cause bloody diarrhea and even kidney failure. E. coli can also cause urinary tract infections, respiratory infections like pneumonia, and other illnesses. One way people get E. coli infections is through the food they eat. Most E. coli infections come from: Undercooked meat Water or food contaminated with feces Unpasteurized (raw) milk or juice Undercooked meat may contain E. coli bacteria. This typically happens if the meat comes from an animal infected with E. coli. Properly cooking meat kills the E. coli bacteria. Contact with water that is contaminated with feces is not just limited to drinking water. Swimming in contaminated water, even in a swimming pool, can also expose you to E. coli. 1

2 Food may become contaminated with feces if it is not handled or prepared properly. For example, meat can become contaminated with feces while being processed at a meat packing plant. If the meat isn t properly cooked before it is served, it can spread bacteria. Foods like raw fruits or vegetables can also be contaminated with animal feces. These foods often grow on the ground and may be exposed to animals. Wash all raw fruits or vegetables before eating them. Rarely, E. coli may be passed from one person to another. If someone with an E. coli infection doesn t wash his or her hands after going to the bathroom, the bacteria can be transferred to objects touched by that person. Anyone who touches these objects may become infected. Contact with animals that carry the E. coli bacteria may also cause an infection. Cattle are the main sources of common strains of E. coli. However, other animals may also carry these bacteria. Symptoms and Diagnosis Symptoms of E. coli usually appear 24 to 72 hours after being infected. This is the time it takes for the bacteria to enter the intestine. Symptoms may be mild or severe. This depends on the strain of E. coli bacteria that caused the infection. The most common symptom of most strains of E. coli is bloody diarrhea that starts suddenly. Other common symptoms include: Gas or bloating Stomach cramping Loss of appetite Fever Vomiting may also be a sign of an E. coli infection. However, vomiting is not common. 2

3 Symptoms of a severe E. coli infection include: Bloody or red urine Reduced amount of urine Pale skin Easy bruising It is rare for E. coli to cause these symptoms, but is important for you to recognize them should they develop. To diagnose an E. coli infection, your healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms. He or she may also perform a physical exam to check for pain in the stomach and dehydration. Dehydration is when your body does not have as much water as it needs. Your healthcare provider may order some lab tests. A stool sample may be tested for the presence of E. coli bacteria. If food is a suspected source of the bacteria, this may also be tested. Complications of E. coli Infections The most common complication from an E. coli infection is hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS. Hemolytic means that the red blood cells burst open inside the blood vessels. These cells are not functional anymore. This also leads to blood in the urine and possibly to kidney failure. About 10 to 15% of people who have had E. coli will develop hemolytic uremic syndrome. HUS is a serious illness that must be treated in the hospital. It can cause death. HUS can start 5 to 10 days after the diarrhea starts. By this time, the E. coli infection is usually gone. Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome 3

4 HUS is more common in children. It is the most common cause of acute kidney failure in children. HUS can cause other complications. These include: High blood pressure Blindness Paralysis Treating E. coli Infections Most E. coli infections get better without treatment. An infection usually lasts 5 to 10 days. Diarrhea caused by E. coli infections may lead to dehydration. Drink plenty of fluids, especially water. If you become dehydrated you may need to receive fluids through an IV at the hospital. Eating smaller, more frequent meals may help with the diarrhea. Eating foods that are salty and high in potassium may help you feel better. Antibiotics rarely help with E. coli infections. In fact, taking antibiotics may increase your chances of getting HUS. You should not take medicine to stop the diarrhea unless your healthcare provider says it is okay. Stopping the diarrhea allows the harmful E. coli bacteria to stay in your intestines. When to Contact a Healthcare Provider Call your healthcare provider if you have: Bloody or black stools Pus in your stools Stomach pain that doesn t go away after a bowel movement Developed diarrhea after traveling to a foreign country Diarrhea and a fever higher than 101 F (100.4 F in children) Dehydration symptoms 4

5 You should also contact your healthcare provider if the diarrhea gets worse or doesn t get better after 5 days. Children should see a healthcare provider if the diarrhea hasn t gotten better in 2 days. You should contact your healthcare provider if your child has been vomiting for more than 12 hours. In children younger than 3 months, you should call your healthcare provider as soon as vomiting or diarrhea begins. Preventing E. coli Infections In most cases, E. coli infections can be easily prevented. The easiest way to prevent E. coli infections is to wash your hands frequently. Always wash your hands after you use the bathroom or change a diaper. You should also wash your hands after having contact with animals and the places animals have been. Another important way to prevent E. coli infections is to cook meat thoroughly. The best way to make sure meat is cooked properly is by using a meat thermometer. Different meats and different cuts of meat are considered safe to eat at different temperatures. Talk to your healthcare provider or an employee at your local deli to find out more about safe minimum cooking temperatures. Also, be careful when you handle raw meat. You could leave E. coli bacteria on other surfaces that you touch. Always wash your hands after you handle raw meat. Keep cooked meat away from raw meat and clean any surfaces the raw meat came in contact with. Raw fruits or vegetables may also be contaminated with animal feces. Wash all raw fruits or vegetables before eating them to prevent E. coli infections. You should also avoid raw milk, unpasteurized dairy products, and unpasteurized juices like fresh apple cider. These products have not been treated with heat to kill any E. coli bacteria that may be in them. 5

6 Also avoid swallowing any water from swimming pools or lakes, ponds, and streams. A small amount of feces may have contaminated the water. This means the water may contain E. coli bacteria. Summary E. coli is a type of bacteria. Some types of E. coli are harmless and live in the intestines without causing any problems. However, other types of E. coli can make you sick. Most E. coli infections come from contaminated food or water. It is possible for E. coli infections to be passed from one person to another. However, this is not as common. Preventing E. coli infections is as simple as washing your hands frequently, cooking meat thoroughly, and avoiding possible sources of E. coli. Some E. coli infections may cause life-threatening complications. However, most E. coli infections get better without treatment in 5 to 10 days. 6

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