Dr. MJ Bazos MD,
E. coli is short for Escherichia coli
O157:H7-a germ that causes severe cramps and diarrhea. E. coli is a
leading cause of bloody diarrhea. The symptoms are worse in children and older
people, and especially in people who have another illness. E. coli
infection is more common during the summer months and in northern
How can I catch
You can catch E. coli infection by doing
one of the following:
- Eating undercooked ground beef (the inside is
- Drinking contaminated (impure) water
- Drinking unpasteurized (raw) milk
- Working with cattle
Healthy beef and dairy cattle
may carry the E. coli germ in their intestines. The meat can get
contaminated with the germ during the slaughtering process. When beef is ground
up, the E. coli germs get mixed throughout the meat.
The most common way to get this infection is by
eating undercooked hamburgers. You can be infected with the E. coli germ
if you don't use a high temperature to cook your beef, or if you don't cook it
long enough. When you eat undercooked beef, the germs go into your stomach and
The germ can also be passed from person to
person in day care centers and nursing homes. If you have this infection and
don't wash your hands well with soap after going to the bathroom, you can give
the germ to other people when you touch things, especially
People who are infected with E. coli are
very contagious. Children shouldn't go to a day care center until they have 2
negative stool cultures (proof that the infection is gone). Older people in
nursing homes should stay in bed until 2 stool cultures are
What are the
symptoms of E. coli
Symptoms start about 7 days after you are
infected with the germ. The first sign is severe abdominal cramps that start
suddenly. After a few hours, watery diarrhea starts. The diarrhea causes your
body to lose fluids and electrolytes (dehydration). This makes you feel sick and
tired. The watery diarrhea lasts for about a day. Then the diarrhea changes to
bright red bloody stools. The infection makes sores in your intestines, so the
stools become bloody. Bloody diarrhea lasts for 2 to 5 days. You might have 10
or more bowel movements a day. Some people say their stools are "all blood and
You may have a mild fever or no fever. You may
also have nausea or vomiting. If you have any of these symptoms - watery, bloody
diarrhea, cramps, fever, nausea or vomiting - try to get to your doctor right
Are there any
complications from E. coli
The most common complication is called hemolytic
uremic syndrome. People with this problem get hemolytic anemia (which is a low
red blood cell count), thrombocytopenia (which is a low platelet count) and
renal failure (which is kidney damage).
Hemolytic uremic syndrome is more common in
children. It can cause acute renal failure in children. This problem starts
about 5 to 10 days after the diarrhea starts. People with this problem must go
to a hospital for medical care.
E. coli infection
The diagnosis is made by finding E. coli
in a stool culture. If you have bloody diarrhea, see your doctor as soon as
possible. Your doctor will do a culture to find out if you have E. coli
in your intestines. The culture has to be taken in the first 48 hours after
the bloody diarrhea starts.
How is the
There is no special treatment, except drinking a
lot of water and watching for complications. Don't take medicine to stop
diarrhea unless your doctor tells you to. This medicine would keep your
intestines from getting rid of the E. coli germ. If you are seriously
dehydrated, you might need to go to the hospital to have fluids put into your
veins with an IV.
How can I keep
from getting E. coli
You can help prevent this infection by handling
and cooking meat in a safe way. For your protection, follow these
- Wash your hands carefully with soap before you
- Cook ground beef until you see no pink anywhere.
- Don't taste small bites of raw ground beef while
- Don't put cooked hamburgers on a plate that had
raw ground beef on it before.
- Cook all hamburgers to at least 155°F. A
meat thermometer can help you test your hamburgers.
- Defrost meats in the refrigerator or the
microwave. Don't let meat sit on the counter to defrost.
- Keep raw meat and poultry separate from other
foods. Use hot water and soap to wash cutting boards and dishes if raw meat and
poultry have touched them.
- Don't drink raw milk.
- Keep food refrigerated or frozen.
- Keep hot food hot and cold food cold.
- Refrigerate leftovers right away or throw them
- People with diarrhea should wash their hands
carefully and often, using hot water and soap, and washing for at least 30
seconds. People who work in day care centers and homes for the elderly should
wash their hands often, too.
- In restaurants, always order hamburgers that are
cooked well done so that no pink shows.