Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.
E. coli are gram-negative bacteria found worldwide; there are many subtypes of this bacterial species that cause a wide variety of diseases in humans; the bacteria can be transmitted person-to-person and by contaminated food and water.
E. coli cause disease by invading tissues, by producing various toxins, by adhering to tissues and by forming aggregates or clumps of bacteria.
Seek medical care if a person has
dehydration, sustained fever above 101 F (37.7 C), blood in stools or has ingested food or fluid known to be contaminated with
E. coli strains that cause an outbreak of disease.
Definitive diagnosis is made by immunological tests or by culturing the bacteria from the patient or patient's food or fluid source.
Many patients need no treatment because the disease is usually self-limiting; however, patients with serious infections may require hospitalization.
Complications, especially with E. coli 0157:H7 and a few other strains, can result in hemorrhagic (very bloody) diarrhea, kidney failure (termed hemolytic-uremic syndrome), thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (loss of blood platelets and kidney failure) and occasionally, death.
Prevention of E. coli infections is done by:
using a good hand washing technique,
cooking meats thoroughly,
avoiding drinking raw milk and swallowing water from lakes, ponds, or swimming pools, and
avoiding contamination of other foods with raw meat by using cleaned utensils and preparation surfaces.
Prognosis in about 90% of patients is excellent with complete recovery; people with complications have a wide range of outcomes from good to poor.
Escherichia coli (including E. coli 0157:H7) are gram-negative bacteria that
are rod-shaped, have the ability to survive in aerobic and anaerobic
environments (termed a facultative anaerobe), and may or may not produce
flagella and pili (thin hair-like projections) depending on the environmental
needs. E. coli strains are found worldwide and live in significant numbers in
human and other animals as part of the normal bacterial population of the large
intestines. The organisms have likely co-existed with humans for eons, but
were first isolated by T. Escherich in 1885; the organisms were named after him.
E. coli strains are one of the most frequent causes of several common bacterial
infections, including cholecystitis, bacteremia, cholangitis,
infection (UTI), traveler's diarrhea, and other clinical infections such as
neonatal meningitis, pneumonia, abdominal abscesses, and hemolytic uremic
E. coli 0157:H7 belongs to a "group" of E. coli termed enterohemorrhagic E.
coli strains (EHEC). These organisms may be named VTEC or STEC (see section on
Other Enterohemorrhagic E. coli Strains). There are 4 to 6 "groups" of E. coli;
these groups are roughly based on their ability to cause certain diseases and
are listed below:
EHEC (enterohemorrhagic E. coli) –
hemorrhagic colitis or hemolytic-uremic
syndrome (HUS); additional terms for EHEC are VTEC and STEC which stand for Vero
toxin-producing E. coli and Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, respectively.
ETEC (enterotoxogenic E. coli) - traveler's diarrhea
EPEC (enteropathogenic E. coli) – childhood diarrhea
EIEC (enteroinvasive E. coli) – Shigella-like dysentery
EAEC (enteroadherent E. coli) – childhood diarrhea, some cases of
EAggEC (enteroaggregative E. coli) – persistent diarrhea in developing
These four to six groups together are also termed EEC (enterovirulent E.
coli). As the reader can see, there are overlaps in disease syndromes and that
is the reason why experts disagree on the actual number of the bacterial groups
(EPEC, EAEC, and EAggEC or EACE and EAggEC are often lumped together). In
addition, the newest E. coli strain, E. coli 0104:H4 has
properties that distinctly overlap groups EPEC and EHEC (see section on E.
The name E. coli 0157:H7 seems complex; however scientists use the numbers
and letters to specifically designate small differences in E. coli strains. The
0157 is the "O" serotype antigen that identifies the E. coli strain (there are
over 700 strains) and the H7 represents the antigen type on the bacterium's
flagella. These designations are used to identify strains causing specific
diseases and have been utilized to identify outbreaks of disease.
E. coli 0157:H7 is of specific interest to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention (CDC) and physicians around the
world because strains of this bacterium can be particularly virulent (deadly),
even in relatively healthy individuals. Scientists have estimated that only
about 10 – 100 organisms when ingested can cause disease; most other E. coli
need about 10, 000 to over a million organisms to produce disease. This strain
has caused many outbreaks of disease and investigators suggest that at least
70,000 infections occur per year in the US. This strain can result in up to 50%
mortality in the elderly if the patients develop thrombotic thrombocytopenic
purpura (TTP; blood platelet clotting and bleeding). Unfortunately, the bacteria
are easily spread to people by contaminated food or liquids.
Medical Author: Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP Medical Editor:
Charles P. Davis, MD, PhD
Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria are commonly found in the gut of humans
and animals. Most strains of E. coli do not cause harm in the bowels, although
they can cause infections if they spread to urine or blood. However, a few
strains have acquired characteristics that allow them to attach to cells in the
gut, invade the lining of the gut and/or produce toxins that cause damage or
secretory malfunctions of gut cells. One such toxin, the "Shiga" toxin is
capable of causing diarrhea that may be watery or bloody. Strains that produce
Shiga toxin are also called 'STEC' strains. If an STEC strain also has acquired
the ability to adhere to cells in the gut, it is referred to as an
'enterohemorrhagic E. coli' or EHEC. The most common EHEC is E. coli 0157:H7,
but other variants exist, including the one that is causing the 2011 E. coli
outbreak that originated in Germany.