When an E. coli outbreak occurs, how can you protect yourself and those you love?
E. coli (Escherichia coli) — one of the bacteria in fecal matter, found in multiple strains in humans and animals — can be harmless. Yet dangerous strains occasionally surface.
The 0157:H7 strain affecting romaine lettuce, responsible for the largest U.S. E. coli outbreak yet, is one of them.
A particularly nasty bug
Milder E. coli infections cause stomach cramping and diarrhea. The 0157:H7 strain contains a toxin that causes severe stomach cramping, vomiting and diarrhea, which is often bloody.
“What’s unique about this E.coli, and the O157 strain, is that it produces shiga toxin,” says Baruch Fertel, M.D.
“This toxin is responsible for severe symptoms and complications that can hospitalize you. One complication, hemolytic uremic syndrome, can cause kidney failure and long-term damage.”
Normally, doctors see hemolytic uremic syndrome only in the very young, the very old and those with compromised immune systems.
Watch for these symptoms
Cramping, vomiting and diarrhea from E.coli typically develop within three to five days, but can develop as early as one day after ingestion.
Infections can last up to eight days. “In many cases, symptoms should resolve on their own, with rest and plenty of fluids,” says Dr. Fertel.
Kidney complications usually take about one week to develop. Signs of severe dehydration may signal the infection’s presence in your kidneys. Seek medical care immediately if you notice any of these signs:
- A fast heart rate
- Pale skin
- Decreased urination
“Neither antibiotics nor anti-diarrheal medications are recommended for treating E.coli O157,” says Dr. Fertel. “Both types of drug could potentially cause increased complications with the kidneys.”
If you think you have an E. coli 0157 infection, the Centers for Disease Control recommends calling your doctor’s office. (It’s helpful to write down everything you’ve eaten the week before you became ill.) The CDC also recommends reporting infections to your local health department.
How to avoid spreading the illness
If you believe you’ve been infected with E. coli, take extra precautions to keep the illness from spreading:
- Always wash your hands after using the bathroom. Scrub vigorously with soap, and clean under the fingernails, where pieces of bacteria can get caught.
- As with any gastrointestinal illness, dry your hands with paper towels instead of regular hand towels to avoid transferring bacteria.
- When prepping meals, clean counters and cutting boards frequently to avoid cross-contamination.
- Wash all raw vegetables and fruit, including the end areas of vegetables, to prevent cross-contamination.
- Thoroughly wash counters and cutting boards as well to avoid cross-contamination.
- Cook all meat well; undercooked meat is another common source of E. coli contamination.
Hold the lettuce: Buyers, beware
Pay attention when outbreaks of foodborne illness are announced, and take steps to protect your family.
For example, when E. coli 0157:H7 affects romaine lettuce, it’s wise to avoid packaged salads and salad mixes as well, and to ask waitstaff whether restaurant salads contain romaine.
Other common sources of E. coli contamination include raw milk, soft cheeses, raw juice and sprouts.