E. coli

E. coli is the abbreviated medical term for Escherichia coli - a familiar type of bacteria that can infect food, such as beef and vegetables. One aspect of these bacteria, for that matter plenty of other bacteria, is quite extraordinary - they are not detrimental for us all the time. Generally, E. coli is found in our intestine and helps in our digestive process by breaking down and assimilating the ingested foods into our body. However, it is unfortunate that some particular kinds of E. coli, known as strains, are capable of entering the bloodstream from the intestines resulting in an exceptional ailment. The disease E. coli may lead to an extremely severe type of contagion.

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A major indication of being infected by the E. coli bacteria is diarrhea accompanied by blood. Other symptoms of this ailment may include nausea, vomiting and spasms in the stomach. However, it is interesting to note that a number of people infected by these bacteria do not have any symptoms at all. In fact, compared to adults, children are prone to have more symptoms when they endure the disease. Generally, E. coli symptoms begin three or four days after an individual is actually infected by the E. coli bacteria. While majority of the people who come in contact with the bacteria recuperate in a week's time, they generally do not visit any physician to treat their ailment and hence, never come to learn that the ailment was a result of E. coli infection.

E. coli bacteria are able to cause severe problems of the blood or kidneys and when this occurs the symptoms comprise the following:

  • Fever
  • Debility
  • Paleness of the skin
  • Discoloration
  • A very small amount of urine passage

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Diagnosing an E. coli infection

So, how do you actually know that you have been infected by E. coli bacteria? Well, only your physician is able to deduce that you are suffering from this uncommon infectious disease only after he or she interrogates you regarding your problems and symptoms and asks you to undergo a test. In such instances, your physician may ask you to get your stool examined before he or she confirms that you have actually been infected by the bacteria.

As discussed earlier, a particular type of E. coli bacteria, called strains, is harmful for the body. One such extremely harmful strain of E.coli was found in a number of hamburgers in 1993 and again in fresh spinach in 2006. It is very common to find E. coli in beef as the bacteria habitually transmit the disease to cattle. Therefore, it is not surprising to find their presence in meat from cattle and also in their excrement called manure. Are you surprised to learn that there may be cow excrement in your food and have started wondering how it could happen? Well, this can never happen purposefully, but if the manure is made use of as a fertilizer or if water infected with E. coli bacteria is used to irrigate the harvests. It may be mentioned here that using cow manure as fertilizer is a very common practice among the farmers, especially who claim to grow organic crops.

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Foods to keep an eye on

E. coli is an infectious ailment and can be transmitted from one person to another. However, severe cases of E. coli are frequently associated with food contamination by the bacteria. Any person who consumes the contaminated food eventually falls sick. Thus, it is essential to keep an eye on what you are eating or drinking. A number of food items that can result in toxicity by E. coli include:

  • Inadequately cooked minced beef, usually used for hamburgers
  • Vegetables cultivated with cow manure as a fertilizer or washed in water infected by E. coli
  • Fruit juice not pasteurized to eliminate the germs by heating

It is important to note that it is possible to eliminate E. coli bacteria by heating substances infected by it. Therefore, it is not surprising that specialists usually recommend that people should cook beef, particularly minced beef, till it is thoroughly cooked and its color does not remain pinkish. Another way to avoid being infected by E. coli bacteria is to drink only fruit juices that have been pasteurized.

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Last, but not the least important, there are many specialists who suggest that people ought to wash and scrub vegetables before they consume them. Nevertheless, there are many other people who assert that it is quite difficult to get rid of the E. coli bacteria when it has already infected vegetables like onions, lettuce or spinach. According to the second group of experts, more measures need to be taken to avoid infection of vegetables by the bacteria as well as people consuming them. They emphasize that the most important task is to ensure that the bacteria do not come in contact with the harvests and this will itself solve much of the problem.

As mentioned earlier, if any individual suspects that he or she has been infected by E. coli bacteria, their physician will normally ask them to have their blood and samples of stool to be examined to determine the cause of the ailment. In fact, it is essential to test the blood and stool samples to find out if any detrimental strain of E. coli has actually infected the person. It is important to mention that even if the person has developed bloody diarrhea as one of the major symptoms of the ailment, he or she should not take any anti-diarrhea medication, as it may inhibit the recuperation period. In fact, it has been seen that medications intended to cure diarrhea often delay the healing process in persons affected by E. coli.

In most cases, people infected by the E. coli strains are treated at home, while some people, especially critical patients, need to be hospitalized. It may be noted here that poisoning by E. coli bacteria may often result in fatal kidney problems.

E. coli contagion

As discussed earlier, E. coli is a common bacterium that is found in the digestive tracts, especially the intestines, of humans as well as other animals. In fact, there are several varieties of E. coli bacterium and the majority of them are not detrimental for our health. Nevertheless, infection by certain types of the bacteria, called strains, may cause symptoms like diarrhea accompanied with loss of blood. These types of harmful bacteria are known as entero-hemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) and one very familiar type of this harmful bacterium is known as E. coli 0157:H7. When this type of harmful E. coli bacterium infects some people, it may result in acute anemia or even kidney failure. This, in turn, may prove to be fatal. There are a number of other E. coli strains that may result in infections in the urinary tract or other contagions.

Reasons for an E. coli infection

There are several ways by which an individual may come into contact with the strains of E. coli bacteria. Some of the most common ways through which a person can develop a serious E. coli infection is when he or she comes in contact with excreta or stools of humans as well as different animals. Such infection normally occurs when a person drinks water or consumes food that has been infected by fecal matter.

E. coli in food: It may be noted here that it is possible for meat to be infected by E. coli strains during its processing period. Unless such meat is cooked at high temperatures, for instance a minimum of 71°C (160°F), the E. coli bacteria cannot be eliminated or killed and it will infect the person when he or she consumes the meat. In fact, most people in Canada are infected with E. coli in this manner. In addition, any other foodstuff that remains or has been in contact with the raw meat may also turn out to be contaminated.

Apart from meat and vegetables, foods that are also liable to become contaminated with E. coli bacteria include:

  • Unprocessed milk or dairy products are susceptible to contamination with E. coli. In fact, these bacteria may spread from the mammary glands or breast of the cows to their milk. Therefore, while purchasing milk or other dairy products it is important to confirm from the product's label whether it has been 'pasteurized' or not. If the label contains the term 'pasteurized', it means that the food has been processed through heat to kill the bacteria and is safe for consumption.
  • Uncooked vegetables and raw fruits, including lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, unpasteurized apple cider or any other fruit juice that has not been pasteurized. When these items come in contact with contaminated animal excreta, they are also liable to become infected with E. coli.
  • E. coli can easily contaminate water, especially when human or animal feces come in contact with the water. It is natural that at times, human and/ or animal excreta comes in contact with water in the lakes, pools and even water supplies. In fact, majority of the people living in a town or city may get infected with E. coli if the water supply to the homes have been contaminated by the bacteria and the authorities have failed to treat the water adequately with chlorine.
  • E. coli can be transmitted from an infected person to a normal person. The bacteria can spread from one person to another person, especially if the infected individual does not wash his or her hands properly following a bowel movement. In fact, E. coli has the aptitude to spread from a person infected with the bacteria to other individuals or even objects.

Remedy for E. coli infection

Although E. coli infection may often result in serious ailments, usually the disease and the problems caused by the malady disappear on their own. The most important treatment for patients infected with strains of E. coli bacteria is keeping them at ease and sipping water at regular intervals. Drinking water is very important in such cases, as the main symptom of E. coli is bloody diarrhea that results in the body losing much of its fluids. If adequate amount of water is not consumed, it may eventually result in dehydration, which may prove to be hazardous, particularly for infants and the elderly patients.

However, if the patients continue take regular sips of water, it will help in avoiding dehydration. It is important to note that even if any patient develops a bloody diarrhea owing to E. coli contagion, they should never take anti-diarrhea medications or any antibiotic, as taking these medications may result in the inhibition of the digestive procedure. And, when the digestive process slows down, it allows more time for the body to take in or soak up the toxics produced by the E. coli bacteria. When you experience symptoms like bloody diarrhea owing to E. coli infection, it is advisable to straight away contact your physician or healthcare provider.

It may be mentioned here that while some people infected by strains of E. coli bacteria do not experience any symptoms whatsoever, in many other patients the contagion may result in severe problems relating to the blood and the kidneys. Many patients affected by E. coli get treated at home and do not have to be hospitalized. On the other hand, condition of people developing severe infections may deteriorate to such extents that they require hospitalization and sometimes, even blood transfusion or dialysis may become necessary. It may be mentioned here that dialysis is a healing process that aids in filtering the waste products produced by our body from the bloodstream when the kidneys fail to function properly.

Prevention of E. coli contagion

As discussed earlier, E. coli infection is caused by coming in contact with or consuming vegetables, fruits, milk, dairy products, meat and water that have been polluted by the strains of the bacteria. Interestingly enough, although these products may be infected by the bacteria, it will be difficult for you to make out that these items are contaminated because even after being infected by E. coli germs, they will continue to look and smell as before. Nevertheless, you can take a number of precautions to avoid being infected by E. coli. Here are some of the precautions you may adopt:

  • Cook all varieties of beef, especially minced beef used in hamburgers, methodically up to a minimum temperature of 71°C or (160°F) as this will help to destroy the bacteria.
  • When you are working in the kitchen, frequently wash your hands meticulously with hot and soapy water, particularly after you touch raw meat. It is preferable to wear gloves while handling raw meat as this will protect you from coming in contact with the bacteria, if there are any in the raw meat.
  • Thoroughly wash all kitchen items and surfaces with hot and soapy water that may have come in contact with the raw meat.
  • Always use pasteurized milk, dairy products and fruit juices. When these items are pasteurized it means that they are safe for consumption, as the E. coli germs, if any, have been destroyed by application of intense heat.
  • Never drink the supply water directly for it may be infected by the bacteria or not be properly treated for consumption. Hence, it is essential to only use water that has been adequately treated or chlorinated for drinking purpose.

Here is a word of caution. When you are visiting any country where the drinking water is not safe for consumption, never drink tap water directly. Also avoid using ice in such places, as the ice may be made with water that may possibly be contaminated. Instead, always use bottled water that is reliable for consumption. In addition, also avoid consuming raw or uncooked vegetables and fruits unless you personally peel the skin of the fruits and vegetables and wash them meticulously.

Also remember to wash your hands frequently, especially after using the bathroom or changing diapers. This is essential because the E. coli bacteria is present in excreta and spreads from one person to another easily when you do not wash your hands thoroughly after bowel movements.

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