Just How Dangerous is E. Coli?

From time to time the term E. Coli is heard in the news, and it would often be lumped together with words such us contamination, food, danger, and even death. A lot of people have a basic understanding of what this is—that it’s a kind of bacteria that can be found on food, which can make humans sick. That’s as far as their understanding is when it comes to E. Coli. Unfortunately, others don’t have a clue what this is.

E. Coli is short for Escherichia coli. It is a bacterium that is found in the guts of endotherms or warm-blooded organisms. This was discovered by Theodor Escherich, a bacteriologist, in 1885. It actually has many beneficial functions, which includes production of vitamin K2 and preventing harmful bacteria from settling in the intestines. It is also considered friendly bacteria because it can produce sugar-modified proteins that allow for the production of pharmaceutical drugs faster.

What many do not know is that E. coli has many strains, and most are harmless to humans. However, there are a few that can cause food poisoning and cause serious infections. But the most dangerous is O157:H7, which can be life threatening. This is because this produces a potent toxin called Shiga toxin, which is very harmful to the small intestine.

A healthy adult may usually recover from this strain within a week. But it will be harder for young children and old individuals with weakened immune systems. They may develop a potentially fatal type of kidney failure called HUS (hemolytic uremic syndrome), as well as develop CNS (central nervous system) problems such as seizures, and may even go into a coma.

Other risk factors or what may raise the chances of getting infected with E. Coli include immunocompromised systems, and surgery to reduce stomachs, as there will be less stomach acid to kill bacteria.

There are different ways to become infected with E. Coli. Here are some:

  1. Contaminated water – unfortunately, water can become contaminated even if it’s been treated.
  1. Ingesting contaminated food – when food is handled improperly this can cause food to be contaminated, especially if handled by someone who doesn’t wash his or her hands after going to the toilet.
  1. Physical contact – an infected person can transmit the infection. Hence, it is important to have good hand hygiene.
  1. Animals – animals can transmit the infection.
  1. High fiber diets – researches have reported that those with high-fiber diets are more at risk of being infected.

Those who have been infected will experience symptoms as early as a day or within a week. Symptoms include:

  1. Abdominal pain – there will be severe stomach cramping that suddenly appears.
  2. Diarrhea – within hours after the onset of abdominal pain, the person will experience diarrhea. There may be bloody stools, which is caused by sores in the intestines.
  3. Nausea and vomiting – some patients may not experience vomiting only nausea.
  4. Fever – some may experience fever; some may not.
  5. Fatigue – with the loss of fluids due to diarrhea and vomiting (if it occurs), electrolytes are lost, which will lead the person to feel sick and tired.

There are cases where people infected don’t show any symptoms at all, and may unknowingly spread the infection.

The bad news is there is no treatment for E. Coli O157:H7. It has to run its course. Patients are warned not to take OTC medications for diarrhea, as this will interfere with the body’s ability to eliminate toxins properly.

 In order to be safe from E. Coli, prevention is the key:

  1. Cook meat thoroughly, especially ground meat.
  2. Wash vegetables thoroughly, especially leafy greens.
  3. Wash cutlery and crockery thoroughly with warm and soapy water.
  4. When storing food, store separately.
  5. Use separate cutting boards for vegetables and meats.
  6. Do not store raw ground beef right next to other foods.
  7. Always wash your hands before and after handling food and touching animals.