E. coli is a group bacteria that lives in the intestinal tract of humans. While generally harmless, there are some strains of E coli that can cause problems ranging from mild symptoms such as bloating and diarrhea to others more severe such as urinary tract infections, bloody diarrhea and kidney disease.
E coli symptoms usually appear 2 to 4 days after you’ve come in contact with the bacteria, but it can be as fast as one day or it can take 10 days to manifest itself. This is due to the fact that a particular strain of E coli may be harmless in the gut, but once it reaches the intestines it starts to multiply and produce toxins.
Some people who are infected may not have any symptoms and may spread the infection without knowing it.
E. coli or Escherichia coli is a group of bacteria that inhabits the intestines of humans and animals, particularly cattle. Most of the time we don’t care about it because E coli is a bacteria that doesn’t harm us – it is part of us. However sometimes a strain of this bacteria might mutate into a new one or we might come into contact with another from the “outside”. Most strains are harmless but some can be very damaging to our health. The severity of E coli symptoms indicates the seriousness of the infection. One particular strain of E coli that causes problems in humans is O157. In some people this strain causes mild problems such as vomiting or temporary nausea but in others it can lead to anemia and even kidney failure.
How does E coli spread?
The most common way that E coli spreads is through contaminated fecal matter or through people who are infected with E coli but do not practice good hygiene habits such as washing your hands after you’ve been to the bathroom. It takes a microscopic amount of fecal matter to be ingested for the bacteria to find itself in the gastrointestinal tract where it can make problems for the host.
E. coli can also make it’s way into meat during processing. If this meat is not properly cooked and ingested afterwards, it can cause an E. coli infection. This is the most common way people in the United States become infected with E. coli.
Another way for the bacteria to spread is through raw milk that hasn’t been pasteurized.
E. coli can also get into water sources through human or animal feces that contain the bacteria. If infected water is not treated either through boiling or chlorination, an E. coli outbreak can occur. This is particular risk in city or town water supplies that haven’t been properly treated. Swimming and accidentally ingesting E coli contaminated water is also another way to become infected.
E coli symptoms
The range of E coli symptoms are wide. Some people show no signs or symptoms of an E coli infection. Others have mild symptoms and generally report to have an upset stomach. In some the bacteria can pose a serious threat and require hospitalization.
Within 1 to 10 days from contracting the bacteria, the following symptoms might occur:
- Watery or bloody stools
- Stomach cramps
Most people that show E coli symptoms usually clear up within 5 to 10 days and make a full recovery. Others can develop more serious symptoms such as:
- Pale or skin
- High grade fever
- Very little passing of urine
Children are more likely to exhibit symptoms than adults.
If you show any E coli symptoms of infection then you should visit a doctor. He will give you a question exam after which you might have to submit a stool sample for analysis.
Diagnosis of E. coli might be complicated by the fact that many bacterial infections are also accompanied by high fever. If you have low grade fever or no fever at all, there might be something else than an E coli infection responsible for your symptoms.
Most cases of E coli do not require any medication. The body combats the infection successfully most of the time. When this isn’t the case, supportive treatment might be administered such as oral or IV fluids. Plenty of sleep and fluids is all that is needed to treat an infection. Antibiotics or antidiarrheal medication might cause complications and are not recommended.
Prevention of E coli infections can be achieved through good hygiene habits.
- Washing your hands after using the bathroom and before preparing or eating is crucial.
- Proper heat treatment of food is also necessary to eliminate all the harmful bacteria that might be present.
- Fruits and vegetables should be washed with plenty of water to remove any dirt.
- Milk should be pasteurized (heat treated) before consumption.
- Meat should be cooked at a minimum 71°C (160°F) degrees. When in doubt, the meat shouldn’t be pink (raw) in the middle – it should be brown.
- When preparing food, keep raw meat away from other food products such as vegetables. Use separate cutting boards and wash any kitchen utensils after working with raw meat.
- Drink only from safe water sources that have been treated.
- If you’re diagnosed with E coli, do not prepare food for others. It’s also advised to isolate yourself so as to not spread the disease to others, especially if you work in a public place like a day care center or a hospital.
Severe E coli symptoms such as bloody diarrhea or low passing of urine indicate some form of complication. One such condition is the haemolytic-uraemic syndrome (HUS) which is caused by the toxins released by the E coli bacteria entering the bloodstream and in turn poisoning the kidney. Another complication similar to HUS but which is more likely to be found in adults than in children is thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP).
If you experience bloody diarrhea or any other more severe E coli symptoms then it can be indicative of a possible complication and you should contact your doctor as soon as possible.
With E coli, complications are more likely in children, elderly people and those who have a lowered immune response.
In most people the symptoms improve within a week and are known to recover completely by the third week.