Nutrition / Food

What Exactly Is E. Coli and How Likely Is It to Make Me Sick?

Understand what causes an E. coli infection and how you can avoid it.

When we hear the word “E. coli” most of us don’t know exactly what it means. But we do know that it’s something we definitely don’t want. E. coli, which is actually short for Escherichia coli, are bacteria that live inside the intestines of both people and animals.

Certain strains can cause severe food poisoning symptoms. This is why we’ve learned to take certain precautions to avoid getting infected.

If you’re still left wondering what exactly causes an infection and how you can avoid one at all costs, Aaptiv’s here to set the record straight.

What is E. coli?

E. coli are a large and diverse group of bacteria that are actually a normal part of our environment. “It is the most common oxygen using bacteria in our intestines, protecting the intestinal borders from anything unhealthy outside,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD.  “It also produces critical vitamin K for strong bones and a healthy heart, and vitamin B12 for our bodies use.”

Although most strains are harmless, others can make you sick. “Most E. coli are good guys,” says Teitelbaum. “The problem is when a couple of its illness-creating cousins get into the intestine, or when the E. coli get into the bladder where they cause bladder infections.”

We all begin as babies with healthy E. coli. We spend the rest of our lives in a healthy symbiosis with these versatile bacteria. But, when a bad strain comes along, secretes toxins, and creates an infection in a part of your body, symptoms develop.

How does someone contract “bad” E. coli?

The unhealthy strains most often come from food poisoning. Unlike many other disease-causing bacteria, E. coli can cause an infection even if you ingest only small amounts. “This occurs from unwashed vegetables, or when food handlers don’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom,” says Teitelbaum. You can also get E. coli from undercooked meat, unpasteurized dairy products, contaminated fruits and vegetables, and impure water sources.

Ground beef is especially an issue. The E. coli bacteria found in the cow’s intestines can get on the meat when they’re slaughtered. Since ground beef combines meat from many different animals, this increases the risk of contamination.

Fresh produce is also a common food contaminated with E. coli, especially spinach and lettuce, due to the runoff from cattle farms that can contaminate fields where fresh produce is growing.

What are the symptoms?

Since there are many strains of the bacteria that can produce infections in various parts of the body—and which may or may not produce toxins—the variety of symptoms caused by E. coli infections is broad. “They run the full range of seriousness, from a trivial bladder infection, which gets better with three day of antibiotic[s], to a fatal brain infection despite aggressive hospital ICU care,” says David Cutler, MD.

However, don’t be too concerned about getting a fatal case of E. coli. According to the CDC, in 2018, only 197 people in 35 states were infected during an outbreak, with five reported deaths. Thankfully, most strains just cause mild symptoms, such as diarrhea. However, others can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea, and vomiting. Symptoms typically begin three or four days after exposure to the bacteria. You can treat the infection with antibiotics.

Healthy E. coli also causes over 90 percent of bladder infections. This occurs when E. coli from the stool find their way into the bladder,” says Teitelbaum. “Much of this can be avoided by simply wiping from front to back (away from the bladder) after bowel movements.”

How can you prevent yourself from getting it?

“Without a doubt, the single best prevention against E. coli infection is careful hand washing,” says Cutler. This includes washing your hands after going to the bathroom, as well as washing your food before you eat it.

When preparing meat, you should make sure that it’s cooked thoroughly. Use a meat thermometer, especially with hamburgers, to ensure that your food reaches a safe temperature of 160 Fahrenheit. Keep your raw foods separate from other food, and avoid cross contamination from utensils. When it comes to produce, wash thoroughly. This can help get rid of dirt where the bacteria can cling.

Unfortunately, there’s no vaccination for E. coli to protect us completely. But it’s not something you should lose sleep over. Follow the right precautions, and you can protect yourself from any unwanted infections.

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