What you need to know about E. coli

What E. coli is, where it is found and how to prevent contamination.

If you’ve heard the news in recent months, you may have seen instances of E. Coli outbreaks. In order to understand these outbreaks, we need to know what exactly E. coli is and how to prevent it.

E. coli is a bacterium that is found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals. Most types of E. coli are harmless, but there are a few strains that can cause foodborne illness. The most severe type of E. coli is known as E. coli 0157:H7, which can cause serious and potentially fatal diseases and can sometimes cause kidney failure and even death. E. coli 0517:H7 produces a toxin known as Shiga toxin.

The sources of E. coli 0157:H7 vary. It may be transmitted through contact with fecal matter during processing of animal foods or because of improper food handling. This can happen when those handling food don’t effectively wash their hands before touching food and/or utensils. It’s also possible for plant foods to be contaminated from raw manure fertilization, or from irrigation with contamination from human contact. Person-to-person transmission can occur as well.

The symptoms of E. coli 0157:H7 include watery diarrhea that is often bloody, severe abdominal pain and cramping and vomiting. In rare cases, a low-grade fever may be present. These symptoms can start between 3-9 days following infection and may last up to 10 days. Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) may develop as a complication of E. coli infection. HUS is characterized by decreased urine production, dark colored urine, and severe anemia. HUS develops in 2-7 percent of cases where E. coli 0157:H7 is confirmed, and can eventually lead to acute kidney failure.

If infected with E. coli 0157:H7, it’s important to get plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids. Antibiotics should not be used as treatment for this infection.

Prevent this bacterium by thoroughly cooking high-risk foods (which includes ground beef, pork, veal and lamb) to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid eating high risk foods such as unpasteurized milk or juice, soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk or alfalfa sprouts. Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before preparing foods and after going to the bathroom.

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