What is E. coli?
Although it makes the news every so often during an outbreak of foodborne illness, E. coli in and of itself isn't necessarily bad. The term refers to a large group of bacteria found in the intestine of many living organisms. As the Centers for Disease Control points out, most strains of E. coli are an important part of a human's intestinal health.
Problems arise, though, with certain pathogenic strains of E. coli that can cause mild to life-threatening illnesses.
What are the symptoms of an E. coli infection?
Foodborne E. coli outbreaks in the United States often involve the strain O157, part of a group of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli also known as STEC. It's known to cause stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and fever. The symptoms generally resolve within a week, though some people can develop life-threatening conditions.
Out of the more than 250,000 STEC infections reported in the United States each year, 36 percent are caused by O157.
Less than 10 percent of patients with STEC infections develop a potentially fatal type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome. That complication, which usually requires hospitalization, causes patients to urinate less frequently, feel lethargic and lose color in their cheeks and lower eyelids.
What should I do if I think I have E. coli?
Symptoms of a STEC infection can develop as soon as one day after infection and as late as 10 days, though most people begin to fall ill within three to four days. The CDC recommends seeking medical attention if you've had diarrhea for more than three days, especially if you've also had a fever and blood in your stools.
How to avoid an E. coli infection
While it's important to follow CDC guidance regarding E. coli outbreaks, there are also everyday ways to avoid an E. coli infection if a widespread outbreak isn't happening. When preparing food, follow the CDC's four steps for preventing the spread of foodborne illness: clean, separate, cook and chill.
It's also important to practice good hand-washing technique and overall hygiene, especially in food preparation areas.
Outside of the kitchen, the CDC recommends not swallowing pool, lake, stream or pond water and - for the sake of others - avoiding swimming if you've recently had diarrhea.