E. Coli

Escherichia coli O157:H7 or E. coli for short, is a growing cause of food borne illness. Each year, 10,000 to 20,000 new cases of E. coli infection occur in the United States.

Symptoms:

E. coli often causes severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps, although nonbloody diarrhea or no symptoms can be present. Kidney failure can also occur.

Associated foods:

Most E. coli illness has been associated with eating undercooked, contaminated ground beef. Infection can also occur after drinking raw milk and after swimming in or drinking sewage-contaminated water.

Prevention:

  • Cook all ground beef and hamburger thoroughly. Because ground beef can turn brown before disease-causing bacteria are killed, use a digital instant-read meat thermometer to ensure thorough cooking. Ground beef should be cooked until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part reads at least 160¼ F.

  • If you are served an undercooked hamburger or other ground beef product in a restaurant, send it back for further cooking. You may want to ask for a new bun and a clean plate, too.

  • Avoid spreading harmful bacteria in your kitchen. Keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods. Wash hands, counters, and utensils with hot soapy water after they touch raw meat. Never place cooked hamburgers or ground beef on the unwashed plate that held raw patties. Wash meat thermometers in between tests of patties that require further cooking.

  • Drink only pasteurized milk, juice, or cider. Commercial juice with an extended shelf-life that is sold at room temperature (e.g. juice in cardboard boxes, vacuum sealed juice in glass containers) has been pasteurized, although this is generally not indicated on the label. Juice concentrates are also heated sufficiently to kill pathogens.

  • Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly, especially those that will not be cooked.

  • Drink municipal water that has been treated with chlorine or other effective disinfectants.

  • Avoid swallowing lake or pool water while swimming.

  • Make sure that persons with diarrhea, especially children, wash their hands carefully with soap after bowel movements to reduce the risk of spreading infection, and that persons wash hands after changing soiled diapers. Anyone with a diarrhea illness should avoid swimming in public pools or lakes, sharing baths with others, and preparing food for others.

Treatment:

Most persons recover without antibiotics or other specific treatment in 5-10 days. There is no evidence that antibiotics improve the course of disease, and it is thought that treatment with some antibiotics may precipitate kidney complications. Antidiarrheal agents, such as loperamide (Imodium), should also be avoided.

In some persons, particularly children under 5 years of age and the elderly, the infection can also cause a complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome, in which the red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail. About 2%-7% of infections lead to this complication. This life-threatening condition is usually treated in an intensive care unit. Blood transfusions and kidney dialysis are often required. With intensive care, the death rate for hemolytic uremic syndrome is 3%-5%.

People at risk:

Anyone, but especially children under 5 years of age, immunocompromised persons, and the elderly

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