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Frequently Asked Questions About E. coli

What is E. coli?

E. coli, short for Escherichia coli, is a type of bacteria commonly found in the intestines of humans, livestock and other animals that is excreted in feces. The strain called O157:H7, a top cause of food-borne illness, is particularly dangerous. It causes diarrhea, often bloody and usually with abdominal cramps, and can cause fever as well.

How do you get the infection?

The bacteria is generally spread by contaminated food but also can be passed among family members, particularly toddlers with poor hygiene; in day care centers, and from contact with animals and contaminated surfaces at petting zoos.

The most common source of E. coli infection in this country is undercooked ground beef that was contaminated during slaughter or grinding.

The bacteria can be spread by food handlers who don't wash their hands thoroughly after using the restroom, and E. coli can contaminate fresh produce throughout the production chain, from farms to packaging facilities.

Why is it dangerous?

While hundreds of E. coli strains are harmless, the O157:H7 strain produces a powerful toxin. In people with weak immune systems, particularly young children and the elderly, the infection can cause serious kidney damage, blindness, paralysis, the need to remove part of the bowel and sometimes death.

How do I know if I have an E. coli infection?

Call your doctor if you have symptoms including diarrhea, bloody stool, abdominal cramps and fever. Symptoms usually start within two to seven days of exposure to contaminated food. The doctor likely will order testing of a stool specimen to confirm infection.

If I get it, what should I do?

Follow your doctor's advice and drink plenty of nonalcoholic fluids to prevent dehydration. Do not take antibiotics, which can lead to kidney complications, and avoid any anti-diarrheal agents such as Imodium. In the most serious cases, blood transfusions or kidney dialysis may be required.

How can I protect myself against against E. coli?

Always wash your hands with soap and warm water before preparing foods. Wash fresh produce under running water before eating or cooking, even if you are peeling it, and use a produce brush when possible. Dry produce with a paper towel or clean cloth towel. Avoid eating raw sprouts because rinsing will not remove bacteria from them. Keep fruits and vegetables that will be eaten raw separate from all other foods, and use separate utensils, cutting boards and dishes for them.

Cook ground beef until the thickest part or the center is no longer pink. If served an undercooked hamburger, send it back for additional cooking and ask for a clean plate and new bun. Do not drink untreated water, and avoid swallowing water in a lake or swimming pool. Only drink pasteurized milk, juice and cider. Don't eat in restaurants that appear dirty, as this may be a sign of poor worker hygiene.

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