What is e. coli infection?

E. coli infection: Overview

E. coli is the name of a germ, or bacterium, that can live in your stomach and intestines. Some types of E. coli can cause illness and symptoms, such as bloody diarrhea and cramps.

Symptoms of E. coli infection usually end in about 1 week with no further problems. But some people have severe blood and kidney problems.

People in the United States most often get an E. coli infection from eating meat that has been contaminated with E. coli. You can also get the infection from eating raw fruits and vegetables or dairy products that are contaminated with the bacteria. And you can get it from others who are infected.

E. Coli

E. coli is a type of bacteria that lives in the digestive tracts of humans and animals. There are many types of E. coli, and most of them are harmless. But some can cause a dangerous type of diarrhea.

What are the symptoms of an E. coli infection?

Children are more likely than adults to have symptoms of an E. coli infection. Most people with the infection will have:

  • Severe stomach cramps and tenderness.
  • Diarrhea, watery at first, but can become bloody.
  • Nausea and vomiting.

Some people don't notice any symptoms. They may spread the bacteria to others without knowing it.

Symptoms usually start 1 to 4 days after coming in contact with E. coli.

Most people get better in about a week. They often don't see a doctor and don't know that E. coli caused their problems.

With some strains of E. coli, severe blood and kidney problems may occur within 2 weeks after the diarrhea starts. These problems can cause kidney failure and sometimes long-term disability or death in some children and older adults.

When E. coli causes serious problems with the blood or kidneys, symptoms include:

  • Pale skin.
  • A fever.
  • Weakness.
  • Bruising.
  • Passing only small amounts of urine.

How is an E. coli infection treated?

An E. coli infection usually goes away on its own. Your main treatment is to make yourself comfortable and drink sips of water to help prevent dehydration. In some people, the infection causes serious problems with the blood and kidneys. These people may need blood transfusions or dialysis.

How do you prevent an E. coli infection?

There are things you can do to prevent an E. coli infection. For example, cook ground meat to at least 160°F (71°C). Wash tools or kitchen surfaces that have touched raw meat. Use only treated, or chlorinated, drinking water. Wash your hands often, especially after handling raw meat and using the bathroom.

How is an E. coli infection diagnosed?

If your doctor thinks you may have an E. coli infection, they will ask you questions about your symptoms, such as:

  • When did diarrhea start? How long has it lasted? How often do you have bowel movements?
  • Is there blood in the diarrhea?
  • Have you had chills or a fever?
  • Have you had any belly cramps, nausea, or vomiting?

Your doctor will also do a physical exam. They will usually:

  • Take your temperature.
  • Take your blood pressure and measure your pulse rate.
  • Look at your skin color to see if you are unusually pale.
  • Check your stomach for tenderness.
  • Do a rectal exam to find out if you have blood in your stool.

If your doctor suspects an E. coli infection, they will order a type of stool test that detects strains of E. coli.

How can you care for yourself when you have an E. coli infection?

  • E. coli usually goes away on its own. Most of the time, you don’t need antibiotics.
  • If you have diarrhea, don't use over-the-counter antidiarrheal medicine, such as Imodium or Maalox Anti-Diarrheal.
  • When you feel like eating again, start with small amounts of food.
  • To prevent dehydration, drink plenty of fluids. Choose water and other clear liquids. Soda, fruit juices, and sports drinks have too much sugar and not enough of the important electrolytes that are lost during diarrhea. These kinds of drinks should not be used to rehydrate. If you have kidney, heart, or liver disease and have to limit fluids, talk with your doctor before you increase the amount of fluids you drink.
  • Wash your hands often. Always wash them after bowel movements.

What causes an E. coli infection?

You get an E. coli infection by coming into contact with human or animal feces. This can happen when you drink water or eat food that's contaminated by feces. Or it can happen when you come in contact with an infected person who hasn't washed their hands well after a bowel movement.

What is E. coli?

E. coli is the name of a germ, or bacterium, that lives in your intestines. There are many types of E. coli, and most of them are harmless and don’t cause problems. But other types of E. coli can cause illness.

Some types of E. coli, including E. coli O157:H7, can cause bloody diarrhea and cramps.

Some other types of E. coli can cause urinary tract infections or other infections. A urinary tract infection is an infection anywhere along the path between the kidneys and the urethra (where urine comes out of your body).

E. coli infection: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or worse belly pain.
  • You have a new or higher fever.
  • You are dizzy or lightheaded, or you feel like you may faint.
  • You have symptoms of dehydration, such as:
    • Dry eyes and a dry mouth.
    • Passing only a little urine.
    • Feeling thirstier than normal.
  • You cannot keep down medicine or fluids.
  • You have new or more blood in stools.
  • You have new or worse vomiting or diarrhea.
  • You have new swelling.
  • You are very pale.
  • You have new bruises or blood spots under your skin.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You do not get better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.