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E. coli (Escherichia coli)


Disease: E. coli (Escherichia coli) E. coli (Escherichia coli)
Category: Digestive diseases

Disease Definition:

The E. coli (Escherichia coli) are a group of bacteria that include numerous strains. Although most types of E. coli are harmless bacteria that live in the intestines of healthy people and animals, however, a few nasty strains, such as E. coli O157:H7 can cause food poisoning, which is a serious food-borne illness.


Although most healthy adults recover from this illness within a week, however, young children and older adults infected with these bacteria can develop a life-threatening form of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Because antibiotics could increase a person's risk of developing HUS, they are not used as a treatment for this illness.


Handling food safely is the best way to be protected from E. coli, because a person can be exposed to the bacteria from contaminated water or food, particularly from undercooked ground beef and raw vegetables.

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Symptoms, Causes


Usually, after three or four days from the exposure to E. coli O157:H7 the signs and symptoms will appear. However, they may also appear after more than a week, or after one day of the exposure.


The main signs and symptoms of this illness are:


  • Abdominal cramping, pain or tenderness
  • Diarrhea, which could be either mild and watery, or severe and bloody
  • In some cases, low-grade fever
  • In some cases, nausea or vomiting.


In case someone's infected with E. coli O157:H7, they could have 10 or more bowel movements a day, some of which could be entirely blood.


Only a few strains of E. coli trigger diarrhea. A powerful toxin is produced by one group of E. coli that includes O157:H7. This toxin causes diarrhea because it damages the lining of the small intestine.


The leading cause of diarrhea in children in developing countries is a type of E. coli called enterotoxigenic E. coli. It is also the cause of most cases of traveler’s diarrhea. This type has also become an increased source of food-borne illness in developed nations. Some of the places that the enterotoxigenic E. coli bacteria can spread are contaminated water, and contaminated food, such as raw fruits and vegetables.


When the bacteria are accidentally ingested, that person develops an E. coli infection. Contaminated animal or human fecal matters are some of the potential sources of exposure.



Ground and surface water, such as rivers, streams, lakes and water that are used to irrigate crops, could be polluted with runoff from feedlots. Infection could also be caused by accidentally swallowing or drinking water from lakes. Some outbreaks of E. coli have been linked to contaminated municipal water supplies, even though public water systems use chlorine, ozone or ultraviolet light in order to kill E. coli., but some cases of infection have occurred in people who swam in pools or lakes that are contaminated with feces. However, private wells are a greater cause for concern.



Undercooked ground beef is the most common cause of E. coli O157:H7, however, almost one-quarter of outbreaks originate from contaminated produce, such as cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts and spinach. Raw fruits could also be contaminated, such as melons; and prepackaged vegetables and salad mixes carry a large risk of this disease.


When cattle are slaughtered and processed meat can become contaminated. The risk of contamination increases even more because ground beef combines meat from hundreds or even thousands of different animals.
Lagoons of liquid manure could be generated from industrial farming, which could spill into nearby streams. Vegetable fields and orchards could become contaminated due to runoff from feedlots.


Because E. coli bacteria could spread from one surface to another, so the bacteria that are on a cow’s udder or on equipment can end up in milk. Although pasteurization kills the bacteria, but raw milk can be a source of this infections. Dry-cured sausage, salami, unpasteurized apple juice and apple cider are some of the other foods that could become contaminated with this bacteria.



When infected people don’t wash their hands properly, E. coli can travel from one person to another. A person is more likely to become infected with these bacteria if he/she has an infected child. After symptoms improve, children can shed the bacteria in their stools for up to two weeks. Some outbreaks have occurred among children visiting animal barns at country fairs and petting zoos.



Although within one week most healthy adults recover from E. coli, however, older adults and young children are at great risk of developing HUS (hemolytic uremic syndrome), in which bacterial toxins enter the bloodstream and start destroying red blood cells. Kidney failure could also occur when damaged cells clog the tiny blood vessels in the kidneys. The most common cause of acute kidney failure in children is HUS.


HUS develops in about 3 to 15% of people with E. coli O157:H7, which usually occurs in children. Because toxins from the bacteria stay in a person’s system longer, taking anti-diarrheal medications or antibiotics increases the risk of developing HUS.


Some of the signs and symptoms of HUS are:


  • Weakness
  • Paleness
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Low or no urine output
  • Bruising
  • Red urine


Although most children recover completely from HUS with no permanent damage, however, each year a few children die of this disease even with the best of care, including kidney dialysis. Some other children could have other complications or lifelong kidney problems.


Until now, no treatment can prevent complications, cure the infection or relieve the symptoms of the illness caused by E. coli O157:H7.


Resting and drinking lots of fluids to help with dehydration and fatigue is the best option for most people. Because anti-diarrheal medications slow the digestive system down and prevent the body from getting rid of the toxins, they should be avoided.


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