Escherichia coli, or E. coli, often gets a bad rap, but not all forms of the bacteria deserve to be detested, and you can take simple steps to protect yourself from those that are harmful.
What is E. coli?
“While there are many different strains of E. coli, most are a vital part of a healthy gut and do not cause infection. However, there are some strains that can be dangerous,” explains Dr. Lori Noble, physician at Spruce Internal Medicine. One of the worst types is known as E. coli O157:H7. This strain is a Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) that causes bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps and vomiting, and in severe cases can cause kidney failure or death. It’s also the strain most commonly associated with foodborne illnesses, including the recent outbreak started by contaminated romaine lettuce.
Between March 13 and May 7, 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 172 people infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli from 32 states, including Pennsylvania (21 cases) and New Jersey (8 cases). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported the last shipments of potentially contaminated romaine lettuce were harvested on April 16th, so it’s unlikely that any of that lettuce is still available in homes, stores or restaurants because of its 21-day shelf life.
People with the highest chances of contracting E. coli-related illnesses are pregnant women, infants, young children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems, including people with cancer, diabetes or HIV/AIDS.
Recognize the Symptoms
If you are exposed to STEC, you’ll often start feeling sick three to four days after ingesting food that contains the bacteria. However, symptoms from a low-grade fever to diarrhea can start to develop anywhere from one to ten days after exposure.
Most people get better within five to seven days, and infections range from very mild to life-threatening.
Call your doctor if you have diarrhea for more than three days accompanied by a fever, blood in your stool or are vomiting so much that you can’t keep fluids down.
Wash Your Hands
You can limit your risk of exposure to E. coli infections by forming good hygiene habits. "The keys to preventing infection from E. coli and other food-borne illnesses are really simple - vigilance with hand-washing and safe food prep. These are the most important steps to keeping you and those around you safe," says Dr. Noble.
Be diligent and wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom, prepping or eating food, changing diapers, handling animals or visiting their environments. This includes trips to places such as farms and zoos, as well as your own backyard.
Also be sure to wash your hands when interacting with infants and toddlers and regularly sterilize anything that goes into a child’s mouth, including bottles, pacifiers and teethers. Learn how and when to wash your hands to increase its effectiveness in removing disease-causing germs.
Practice Food Safety
Preparing, serving and storing food in a safe manner can also help keep you and your family safe from foodborne illnesses. FoodSafety.gov, which compiles product recalls and alerts from a variety of government agencies, suggests a four-part plan:
- Clean – Wash your hands, countertops, cutting boards, pans and utensils after each use. Also wash all fruits and vegetables, even if you plan to peel them before eating.
- Separate – Use different cutting boards and plates for uncooked produce, meat, seafood and eggs. You should also separate those items in your grocery cart and refrigerator to limit cross-contamination.
- Cook – Use a food thermometer to ensure meals are cooked to the proper temperature. Once your food is cooked, keep it hot (above 140 degrees Fahrenheit).
- Chill – Cold temperatures slow the growth of illness-causing bacteria, so it’s important to chill food within two hours of cooking. Never thaw or marinate foods on the counter, and learn when to throw your leftovers away.
If you think you may have been exposed to E. coli or are experiencing the symptoms listed above, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider.