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Get the facts on E. coli

Experts are looking into the source of several reported cases of E. coli in the metro Atlanta area and similar cases in several Southern states, one which was fatal. We spoke with Patricia Meadors, M.D., with Piedmont Hospital's Emergency Department, and Christine Zurawski, M.D., infectious disease specialist at Piedmont, about the outbreak.

"Most E. coli outbreaks are food-related," says Dr. Meadors, noting that a cause of these latest cases has not been determined. "And when there's an outbreak, it's usually from one source" "E. coli can be spread in the food we eat when it is not washed or processed and prepared properly," Dr. Zurawski says. "There have been cases of E. coli associated with both meat and vegetables."

The current cases affect an age range of between 18 and 50, but anyone can get sick from E. coli. "The very young and the very old can have more severe symptoms," says Dr. Meadors. "Anyone with severe abdominal pain, high fever, diarrhea and nausea should see a doctor immediately."

Dr. Meadors says if you are dining out, make sure you are familiar the restaurant and that the food is fresh. Also, be sure to wash your hands. You should take precautions with food at home, too.

"It is important to thoroughly wash all fresh fruits and vegetables before eating them, especially if you are eating them raw," says Dr. Zurawski. "It remains important not to eat undercooked meat, fish or eggs. Meat should be cooked to the recommended temperature and not allowed to sit out for prolonged periods of time." Click here to see past investigations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Here are some other quick facts you need to know.

What is E. coli?

Escherichia coli, E. coli for short, is a bacteria in the intestines of healthy humans and most warm-blooded animals. E. coli bacteria help maintain the balance of normal intestinal bacteria against harmful bacteria, and synthesize or produce some vitamins.

 

However, there are hundreds of strains of E. coli.

How is E. coli spread?

In 1982, E. coli was initially identified as the cause of bloody diarrhea from eating undercooked or raw hamburger meat that was contaminated with the bacteria. Since that time, outbreaks of E. coli have been associated with other types of foods such as spinach, lettuce, sprouts, unpasteurized milk, apple juice, apple cider, salami and well water or surface water areas frequently visited by animals. Outbreaks have also been traced to animals at petting zoos and day care centers.

What are the symptoms of an E. coli infection?

Symptoms usually begin two to five days after ingesting contaminated foods or liquids, and may last for eight days. The following are the most common symptoms:

  • Abdominal cramps
  • Severe bloody diarrhea
  • Non-bloody diarrhea
  • Little to no fever
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a serious complication that can lead to kidney failure and death

How can an E. coli infection be prevented?

CDC recommendations for prevention include:

  • Wash all vegetables and fruits with water, especially if you do not plan to cook them.
  • Cook all ground beef, pork, sheep meat, or sausage thoroughly. Make sure that the cooked meat is gray or brown throughout (not pink), any juices run clear, and the inside is hot.
  • Use a digital instant-read meat thermometer to make sure the temperature of the meat has reached a minimum of 160 degrees F.
  • If you are served an undercooked hamburger in a restaurant, send it back.
  • Consume only pasteurized milk and milk products. Avoid raw milk.
  • Consume only pasteurized juices and ciders.
  • Keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods.
  • Make sure that infected persons, especially children, wash their hands carefully and frequently with soap to reduce the risk of spreading the infection.
  • Drink municipal water that has been treated with adequate levels of chlorine, or other effective disinfectants.
  • Avoid swallowing lake or pool water while swimming.
  • Wash hands thoroughly after using the toilet.
  • Wash hands thoroughly after handling animals, animal bedding, or any material contaminated with animal feces.
  • People with diarrhea should not:
    • Swim in public pools or lakes
    • Bathe with others
    • Prepare food for others

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