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E. coli is a type of bacteria that normally live in the intestines of people and animals. However, some types of E. coli, particularly E. coli 0157:H7, can cause intestinal infection.
Symptoms of intestinal infection include diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fever. More severe cases can lead to bloody diarrhea, dehydration, or kidney failure. People with weakened immune systems, young children, and the elderly are at increased risk for developing these complications.
Most intestinal infections are caused by contaminated food or water. Proper food preparation and good hygiene can greatly decrease your chances of developing an intestinal infection.
Most cases of intestinal infection can be treated at home. Symptoms generally resolve within a few days to a week.
Symptoms of intestinal infection begin between one to five days after you have been infected with E. coli. Symptoms can include:
Symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to more than a week.
Symptoms of a severe E. coli infection may include:
If you experience any of these severe symptoms, call your doctor.
According to the Johns Hopkins Medical Center, about eight percent of those infected develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a condition in which the red blood cells are damaged (Johns Hopkins). This can lead to kidney failure. This complication can be life-threatening, especially for children and the elderly. HUS generally begins about five to 10 days following the onset of diarrhea.
People and animals normally have some E. coli in their intestines, but some strains cause infection. The bacteria that cause infection can enter your body in a number of ways.
Whether food is prepared at home, in a restaurant, or in a grocery store, unsafe handling and preparation can cause contamination. Common causes of food poisoning include:
During the slaughtering process, poultry and meat products can pick up bacteria from the animals’ intestines.
Poor sanitation can cause water to contain bacteria from human or animal waste. You can get the infection from drinking contaminated water or from swimming in it.
E. coli can spread when an infected person fails to wash his or her hands after having a bowel movement. The bacteria are then spread when that person touches someone or something else, like food. Nursing homes, schools, and childcare facilities are particularly vulnerable to person-to-person spreading.
People who work with animals, especially cows, goats, and sheep are at increased risk for infection. Anyone who touches animals or who works in an environment with animals should wash their hands regularly and thoroughly.
Intestinal infection can lead to dehydration and serious complications, such as kidney failure and sometimes death, if not treated. You should see your doctor if:
A doctor can confirm an E. coli infection with a simple stool sample.
In most cases, home care is all that is required to treat an E. coli infection. Drink plenty of water, get lots of rest, and keep an eye out for more severe symptoms that necessitate a call to your doctor.
If you have bloody diarrhea or fever, check with your doctor before taking over-the-counter antidiarrheal medications. Also, check with your pediatrician before giving medications to infants or children.
If dehydration is a concern, your doctor may order hospitalization and intravenous fluids.
Most people show improvement within a week to 10 days after the onset of an infection and make a full recovery.
There are a number of ways to decrease your chances of developing an intestinal infection due to E. coli. These include:
Written by: Ann Pietrangelo
Medically reviewed by Jennifer Wider, MD
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