What Is E. coli?
E. coli (Escherichia coli) are bacteria that normally live in the environment and in the digestive systems of people and animals, and most strains do not usually cause problems. But there are different types of E. coli, and some of strains can cause illness. Most types of E. coli that cause illness affect the digestive tract and can cause diarrhea, but some strains can cause urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia, and other illnesses.
What Causes E. coli?
E. coli (Escherichia coli) are transmitted by eating or drinking fecal matter. This can happen from eating contaminated food (such as food prepared by people who did not wash their hands properly after using the toilet), drinking contaminated water, consumption of unpasteurized (raw) milk, contact with cattle, or contact with feces from infected people (such as from changing diapers). It can even occur from swimming in contaminated bodies of water or touching the environment in petting zoos and other animal exhibits.
People at higher risk for infection from disease-causing E. coli include:
- Children under age 5
- Adults over age 65
- People with weakened immune systems
Is E. coli Contagious?
Some types of E. coli are contagious and others are not. Some of the strains that cause gastrointestinal problems can be transmitted from person-to-person, usually from fecal/oral exposure (such as eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water, or swimming in contaminated bodies of water). It commonly spreads in foods such as raw meat, raw milk, and raw fruits and vegetables.
Casual contact such as shaking hands or kissing usually doesn’t transmit the bacteria.
How Is E. coli Diagnosed?
E. coli is diagnosed with a physical examination and patient history. Tests include:
- Stool tests
- Blood tests
What Is the Treatment for E. coli?
Most of the time E. coli does not need any specific treatment. Home care is all that is needed.
If illness is severe and you become dehydrated, you may need to be hospitalized and receive intravenous (IV) fluids. Antibiotics are usually not prescribed as they can often worsen symptoms.
Home remedies to help relieve symptoms of E. coli include:
- Drinking plenty of liquids with water, salt, and sugar such as water mixed with juice, flavored soda, and soup broth
- If you can keep food down, eat a little
- Bland, easy-to-digest foods are best, such as potatoes, pasta, rice, oatmeal, crackers, bananas, soup, and boiled vegetables
- Salty foods are a good choice
Talk to your doctor before taking over-the-counter (OTC) medicines for diarrhea, because in some cases they can slow down the digestive system and prevent the body from ridding itself of the bacteria.
What Are Complications of E. coli?
Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) is a potentially life-threatening complication of E. coli infection that occurs in 5 to 10% of patients.
Symptoms of HUS develop about one week after symptoms first appear, when diarrhea is improving and include:
- Decreased frequency of urination
- Extreme tiredness
- Loss of pink color in cheeks and inside the lower eyelids
HUS requires hospitalization because the kidneys may stop working and other serious problems may occur. Most people with HUS will recover within a few weeks, but the complication can result in permanent disability or death.
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