E. coli is a common bacteria that lives in the lower gastrointestinal tract of humans and animals. It also can be isolated from water and soil. Although most strains are harmless, some strains of E. coli are capable of producing powerful toxins that can cause severe illness.
Although E. coli can be spread by a variety of ways, it is estimated that 85 percent of current E. coli infections are food-borne.
Because the organism lives in the gastrointestinal tract of animals, animal to human transmission is possible. This can occur by direct contact with animals or by consuming contaminated animal products. Meat can become contaminated during slaughter or during processing. Infection can occur from eating contaminated undercooked meat, especially ground beef.
Other known sources of infection include drinking unpasteurized milk and juice, eating contaminated fresh leafy greens such as spinach, lettuce and alfalfa sprouts; eating contaminated salami; and by swimming in or drinking contaminated sewage water.
Without good hygiene and regular hand washing, E. coli can also be spread by person-to-person contact from bacteria in loose stools in homes, daycare centers, nursing homes and hospitals.
Symptons of E. coli infection typically occur within two to eight days of eating contaminated food, with an average onset of three to four days.
The main symptoms are severe bloody diarrhea and stomach cramps. In some cases, the infection causes non-bloody diarrhea. Usually little or no fever develops. Healthy adults can typically recover completely from E. coli within one week without any medication.
However, in some people, espeically children under the age of five and the elderly, E. coli infection can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening condition in which the red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail. In the U.S., E. coli related HUS is the main cause of kidney failure among children. The death rate for HUS is 3-5 percent.
If you think that you or your child has been infected by E. coli, contact your doctor immediately.
E. coli is diagnosed by testing a person's stool for E. coli bacteria.
Most people recover from E. coli infection without treatment within five to 10 days. Antibiotics should not be used to treat this infection because they may lead to kidney complications. Antidiarrheal treatments should also be avoided.
People who develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) are usually treated in the intensive care unit (ICU) with blood transfusions and kidney dialysis.
There are a number of simple ways in which E. coli infection can be prevented.
During an E. coli outbreak, such as the current spinach outbreak, stay informed of current Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations. Presently, eating raw spinach is not recommended. Boiling fresh spinach or cooking fresh spinach until it reaches 160 degrees, usually for 15 seconds or more, will kill E. coli bacteria.
Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or health care provider. We encourage you to discuss with your doctor any questions or concerns you may have.