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E. coli infection

What is E. coli?

Escherichia coli (usually referred to as E. coli) are bacteria found in the digestive system of humans and many other animals.

Many strains are harmless and may play a useful role in the gut, helping us to stay healthy. However, certain strains known as verocytotoxin-producing E. coli (VTEC) produce a potent poison, or toxin. VTEC is a member of the class of illness-causing E. coli known as Enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC).

What are the symptoms of E. coli poisoning?

The most relevant toxin-producing strain found in humans is E. coli 0157. It can cause a range of illnesses from mild to bloody diarrhoea, stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting. Occasionally the infection is so severe that patients develop haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), which is associated with kidney failure, anaemia, and bleeding.

It can take three to four days on average for symptoms to develop. These can last for up to two weeks except in cases where complications develop.

How do you get infected with E. coli?

Infection with E. coli 0157 most commonly occurs when someone eats undercooked meat or consumes unpasteurised milk or cheese.

Other ways of being infected with E. coli include:

  • Having contact with infected animals, such as on farms and at children's petting zoos.
  • Contact with other people who have the illness, through inadequate hand-washing after using the toilet and before handling or eating food.
  • Eating unwashed vegetables that have come into contact with manure from infected cattle.
  • Drinking or swimming in infected water.

How is E. coli poisoning treated?

If you become infected with E. coli 0157, the most important treatment is to make sure you drink enough fluid.

  • If you feel sick, sip small quantities of fluids frequently. Re-hydration solutions, available from a pharmacy, may help.
  • Try to avoid tea, coffee, carbonated drinks or alcohol.
  • Dilute sugary drinks - even if you would not normally dilute them.
  • A painkiller (like paracetamol) can help ease any pain.

Patients who develop complications after being infected with E. coli 0157 may need hospital care.

How can you avoid infection?

The NHS says the most important way of avoiding being infected with E. coli is to ensure high standards of personal hygiene. This includes washing your hands after using the toilet, after handling raw meat, before meals and after touching animals.

Other tips include:

  • Make sure that minced meat products like beef burgers or meatloaf are cooked thoroughly so that they are coloured all the way through, and no blood runs from them.
  • Separate cooked and uncooked meats - for instance, store uncooked meat on the bottom shelf of the fridge to avoid dripping raw meat juices onto other food.
  • Never put cooked food back on a plate that has had fresh uncooked meat on it.
  • Thoroughly wash all salads and vegetables that are to be eaten raw. Peeling or cooking fruit and vegetables can also help remove contamination.
  • Avoid eating and drinking unpasteurised milk and dairy products.
  • Boil drinking water if you are unsure of its source.
  • Don't swim in water that may be contaminated.
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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on February 24, 2017

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