E. coli is a bacterial infection capable of making a person violently ill. Outbreaks of E. coli infection seldom claim just one victim, and these mass occurrences seem to appear in the national news with alarming frequency. Often, sick individuals are diagnosed with a particularly virulent strain of the bacteria.
An outbreak of the infection is typically traced back to contaminated produce or other products the sick individuals may have consumed. Authorities then issue a recall of the contaminated items and people all over the country worry about their own risk of exposure as they throw out suspect grocery items. Sadly, E. coli outbreaks are often traced to foods most of us consider particularly healthful, such as Romaine lettuce or spinach.
Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a bacterium that ordinarily lives in the human digestive tract. Common strains are perfectly normal in the gut, and they do not cause illness. In fact, they are important residents that comprise healthy communities of bacteria living in the gut and contributing to overall good health.
But certain rogue strains are capable of causing illness. At least six strains capable of causing severe diarrhea are recognized by the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When crops are irrigated, or otherwise exposed to water contaminated with a disease-causing strain, the plants may take up the bacteria, making it impossible for conscientious consumers to wash it away. If the food is consumed raw (as most leafy greens are), the bacteria quickly takes hold in the gut, causing severely unpleasant symptoms.
What Are the First Signs of E. coli?
Stomach cramps followed by severe diarrhea are the most common initial complaints. Strains of E.coli linked to illness excrete a toxin that induces these symptoms. Other symptoms may include vomiting, bloody diarrhea, and low-grade fever. Symptoms may appear anywhere from one to ten days after initial exposure. Most people recover within five to seven days after falling ill. In some instances, dangerous complications may develop.
E. Coli Causes & Symptoms
Exposure to an infectious strain of E. coli is the cause of E. coli-related illness. The bacteria must be ingested (through food or drink). E.coli is a common source of traveler’s diarrhea, especially in underdeveloped countries. E. coli outbreaks are fairly common in the United States, however, primarily due to contaminated produce that is allowed to enter the food supply.
Symptoms vary widely among individuals and may depend on the particular strain encountered. Diarrhea is the primary symptom. When diarrhea or vomiting lasts more than three days, the stool is bloody, or a fever develops, visit PhysicianOne Urgent Care.
It should be noted that a small percentage of individuals (about 5% to 10%) may develop a rare complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). It often occurs just as diarrhea is tapering off. Symptoms include decreased frequency of urination, feeling very tired, and losing pink color in the cheeks and inside the lower eyelids. If you develop any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. HUS is potentially life threatening, so it is important to go to the closest PhysicianOne Urgent Care as quickly as possible.
E. Coli Prevention
Thorough hand washing after using the bathroom, preparing foods, or working around sick people is essential to help prevent the spread of this disease. Unfortunately, when E. coli enters the food supply, it is often contained within produce, not on it, and is thus impossible to detect — or to eliminate. Cooking kills the microbe, but many contaminated foods, such as lettuce, are not typically cooked. Always thoroughly cook raw meats, such as hamburger, before serving.
E. Coli Treatment
Unfortunately, the only treatments for E. coli infection at present are supportive. Patients are advised to get ample rest and drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration. The illness typically runs its highly unpleasant course within five to seven days. Over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medicines should not be taken as they may actually prolong the illness by preventing the digestive tract from purging the offending bacteria.
As noted above, when diarrhea or vomiting lasts more than three days, the stool is bloody, or a fever develops, seek professional help from your Primary Care Physician, or visit PhysicianOne Urgent Care. Similarly, decreased frequency of urination, feeling very tired, and losing pink color in the cheeks and inside the lower eyelids may signal a rare complication, and professional help should be sought immediately.
- Drink plenty of clear fluids
- Get plenty of rest
- Do NOT take anti-diarrheal medications
- Seek medical care from your Primary Care Provider or PhysicianOne Urgent Care if severe symptoms persist
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