What is E. Coli?

E. coli is one common type of bacteria. It is short for the medical term Escherichia coli, which normally lives inside your intestines, where it helps your body break down and digest the food you eat. Unfortunately, when the E. coli moves from your intestines, where it's needed, and finds its way into other parts of your body (where it is not supposed to be), you can get sick. There are different types of e. coli and most are okay if they are in your digestive symptom. A rare strain, Escherichia coli O157:H7, is what has been making the news and is a leading cause of foodborne illness in the United States.

How Can I Catch It?

You can become infected with E.coli O157:H7 in a variety of ways. Though most illness has been associated with eating undercooked, contaminated ground beef, people have also become ill from eating contaminated bean sprouts or fresh leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach. In addition, infection can occur after drinking raw milk and after swimming in or drinking sewage-contaminated water. The germ can also be passed from person to person.

What Are The Symptoms?

Symptoms generally start 2-8 days after you are infected with the germ. Severe abdominal cramps and bloody diarrhea are the primary symptoms. Sometimes the infection causes non-bloody diarrhea or no symptoms. Typically there is little to no fever. You may also have nausea or vomiting. If you have any of these symptoms -- watery, bloody diarrhea, cramps, fever, nausea or vomiting — try to get to your doctor right away.

How Can I Prevent It?

  • Cook all ground beef and hamburger thoroughly. Because ground beef can turn brown before disease-causing bacteria are killed, use a digital instant-read meat thermometer to ensure thorough cooking. Ground beef should be cooked until a thermometer inserted into several parts of the patty, including the thickest part, reads at least 160º F.
  • If you're served undercooked meat in a restaurant, send it back for further cooking. Ask for a clean plate and new bun as well.
  • Avoid spreading harmful bacteria in your kitchen. Keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods. Wash hands, counters, and utensils with hot soapy water after they touch raw meat. Never place cooked hamburgers or ground beef on the unwashed plate that held raw patties. Wash meat thermometers in between tests of patties that require further cooking.
  • Drink only pasteurized milk, juice or cider.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables under running water, especially those that will not be cooked. Be aware that bacteria are sticky, so even thorough washing may not remove all contamination. Remove the outer leaves of leafy vegetables. Children under 5 years of age, immunocompromised persons, and the elderly should avoid eating alfalfa sprouts until their safety can be assured.
  • Avoid swallowing lake or pool water while swimming.
  • Wash your hands carefully with soap after bowel movements or changing soiled diapers. Make sure children do so as well.
  • Anyone with a diarrheal illness should avoid swimming in public pools or lakes, sharing baths with others, and preparing food for others.