What you need to know about E.Coli

You may have heard about an outbreak of E. coli from contaminated lettuce. Why is this current outbreak significant?

First, let us look at what E. coli is. It is the nickname for a bacterium that is part of our gastrointestinal tract, Escherichia coli. This bacterium usually does not cause symptoms unless it moves outside of the GI tract, such as to the bladder or kidney, causing an infection if it enters the urine.

The E. coli in this outbreak produces a protein called Shiga toxin which kills cells that line our intestines, and often results in painful, bloody diarrhea. A small percentage of people with bloody diarrhea may require hospitalization because of dehydration and an even smaller percentage may develop kidney damage, called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which may be temporary or permanent. For a more in-depth definition: “hemolytic” means red blood cells that carry oxygen which break apart and cannot work; “uremic” means that the kidneys cannot remove urea, a waste product, from the blood and the urea levels increase.

The E. coli strains that produce the Shiga toxin are usually found in the stool of animals. People become infected when they ingest the bacteria from such sources as:

  • Undercooked meat
  • Food contaminated with stool
  • Plants contaminated with stool or juices from contaminated fruit
  • Raw milk and cider

It is highly suggested to wash hands before preparing food and to ensure avoiding cross-contamination of cooked food from counters or utensils.

For more tips on preventing E. coli, visit the Centers for Disease Control website.

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