What is E. coli?

Originally Published: March 20, 2009 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: March 5, 2013
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Dear Alice,

What is E. coli?

Dear Reader,

What do unwashed greens, raw meat, and stagnant well-water have in common?

Alright, enough racking your brain, this is a tough one. The answer is: they are all potential carriers of E. coli, a bacteria infamous for causing illness and even death.

Escherichia coli is its full Latin name, and while there are hundreds of harmless strains found in nature (including in our own intestinal tracts and those of other warm-blooded animals), the variation most commonly responsible for illness in people in this country is E. coli O157:H7. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports about 73,000 cases of infection with E. coli O157:H7 with about 61 deaths in this country every year.

Transmission of E. coli most commonly occurs through exposure to:

  • Undercooked or raw beef
  • Unwashed sprouts and other produce
  • Un-pasteurized milk, apple juice, and apple cider
  • Contaminated water (from wells, rivers, lakes, or under-chlorinated swimming pools)
  • Having direct contact with an infected person
  • Having direct contact with feces

When ingested by people, E. coli O157:H7 produces a poison called Shiga toxin that can badly damage the intestinal and kidney linings. Symptoms of an E. coli- or Shiga toxin-caused illness are bloody diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, severe abdominal cramping, fever, and sometimes, in children or in people with weakened immune systems, kidney failure. Symptoms usually begin about two to five days after exposure, and can last up to ten days. If the symptoms of E. coli sound confusingly similar to those of the stomach flu or  other ailments, a quick visit to your health care provider, who can test your stool, will tell you for sure.

Most people recover from the effects of E. coli poisoning within five to ten days without any treatment. Just make sure to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. You'll probably need to rest and to stay close to the bathroom for the duration of the symptoms. Antibiotics usually do not help. Health care providers generally don't recommend taking anti-diarrheal medicines, as the body needs to expel the harmful bacteria, unpleasant as the expelling process may be.

If you'd like to avoid this messy ordeal altogether, it's a good idea to:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly after going to the bathroom, changing diapers, or other exposure to human or animal feces.
  • Eat only thoroughly cooked ground beef.
  • Avoid un-pasteurized milks and juices.
  • Wash fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating, raw or cooked. 
  • Wash hands after handling raw meat, and especially before touching other food. 
  • Try not to swallow water when swimming.

Hopefully this clued you in to some ways you can recognize and avoid E. coli and its symptoms of exposure. If you are smart about your food preparations, swimming choices, and diligent about washing your hands, there's a good chance you'll remain E. coli-free.

With clean hands,

Alice