E. coli is a type of bacteria commonly found in the intestines of animals and humans. Most strains are harmless and actually help your stomach stay healthy. On the other hand, some strains, such as E. coli O157:H7, can cause intestinal infection. These strains are also known as STEC – Shiga toxin-producing E. coli.
The most common symptoms of an E. coli infection include a low fever, pain in the abdomen, and diarrhea. E. coli patients can also experience kidney failure, seizures, dehydration, confusion, and bloody diarrhea.
E. coli infection usually comes from poor hygiene, forgetting to wash one’s hands after using the toilet, or from contact with contaminated water or food. It tends to go away on its own, without leaving any consequences.
On the other hand, if it gets out of hand, an E. coli infection can cause a wide range of complications. Some of them can have long-lasting consequences or even cause death. Hence, it is highly recommended to see a doctor if you notice the symptoms of the infection in you or in a family member.
Read on to learn more about this disease. How long does E. coli last? How do you properly treat the infection? This article also covers the best ways to prevent it from happening.
Symptoms of E. Coli
First, how long does E. coli last? It usually takes one to ten days for an infected person to start showing the first signs of an E. coli infection. Once the symptoms kick in, the infection lasts between five and ten days on average. In the case of complications, it can last much longer.
Here is a list of the symptoms commonly associated with E. coli:
- Fever (usually low)
- Loss of appetite
- Severe diarrhea, usually watery, less commonly bloody
- Abdominal pains and cramps
Severe E. coli infections can have a range of additional symptoms, such as pale skin, dehydration, decreased urine output, bruising, and blood in urine. Between five and ten percent of infected people develop HUS (hemolytic uremic syndrome), according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
HUS is a serious condition that causes damage to the red blood cells. It usually starts some five to ten days after the diarrhea. Sometimes, HUS can cause kidney failure, which makes this a potentially lethal condition, especially for the elderly and for children.
Causes of E. Coli
An E. coli infection can be contracted in a range of ways, the most common being improper hygiene and direct contact with the source of infection. Common ways to get infected include person-to-person contact, contact with infected animals, contact with contaminated water, and a lack of proper hygiene during food processing or food handling. Here’s a word or two on each of the leading causes.
From Person to Person
Direct contact with an infected person is one of the easiest ways to contract an E. coli infection. If you come into contact with someone you know or suspect is infected, make sure to thoroughly wash your hands afterwards.
The disease spreads easily if an infected person forgets to wash his or her hands after using the toilet. This spreads the bacteria around, making it easy for a healthy person to contract the infection. This is a common scenario in child care facilities, schools, and nursing homes, where many people share the same toilet and dining area.
Humans can also contract an E. coli infection through contact with animals. It is of utmost importance for those who work with animals to wash their hands often and thoroughly. People who work with sheep, cows, and goats are at an especially high risk of getting the infection.
Contaminated water is another significant source of danger. This kind of infection mostly happens in areas with poor sanitation where the water pipes contain bacteria from animal and human waste. You can get it by bathing in or drinking contaminated water. Also, if an infected person goes to a public swimming pool, they can spread the infection.
Food Processing and Handling
Getting E. coli through improper food handling another common cause of E. coli. Always thoroughly wash your hands before preparing or serving food. Also, make sure that all the utensils and dishes you use are clean.
Raw seafood, raw produce, and unpasteurized milk can contain E. coli. You can also get infected by mayonnaise and dairy products that have been open for too long. Foods that haven’t been properly cooked or stored at recommended temperature are another potential danger.
Who’s at Risk
Anyone can contract E. coli, from infants to seniors. However, there are certain groups that are at a higher risk of getting infected than the others. These groups include children with underdeveloped immune systems, elderly people, people who eat risky foods, individuals with compromised immune systems, and people with insufficient levels of stomach acid.
It’s also worth remembering that E. coli infections are more prevalent in summer. June, July, August, and September are the months when the majority of infections occur.
It goes without saying that you should contact a doctor as soon as you detect the symptoms in you or a family member. Diarrhea that lasts for more than four days is a major red flag, especially if it contains blood. Aside from that, if vomiting lasts for more than twelve hours, and if the abdominal cramps don’t get better after a bowel movement, you should go to the doctor right away.
What happens after you’ve been diagnosed with this disease? Home care is the most prevalent treatment for this infection. This means plenty of rest, proper hydration, and low-fiber food. In the case of diarrhea, you might need to take anti-diarrheal meds. E. coli patients with severe dehydration get hospitalized and treated with intravenous fluids.
There are several things you can do to minimize the chances of an E. coli outbreak in your home. Here are the basics:
- Always wash your hands before preparing, serving, or eating food.
- Always wash your hands after you’ve been to the toilet.
- Make sure all the food is prepared and stored at the right temperatures.
- Don’t eat risky food.
- Always wash fruit and vegetables before consuming them.
- Defrost meat in the microwave or refrigerator, not on the counter.
- Leftovers should go directly in the fridge.
- Refrain from cooking when you have diarrhea.
The Final Word
E. coli infections are mostly harmless, but they can cause serious damage if they get out of hand. The complications of this disease can lead to serious health problems and even death. It is, therefore, of utmost importance to go to the doctor’s if you notice the symptoms.
The standard OTC medicines are prescribed only for certain symptoms, while hospitalization might be in order in case of dehydration. Proper hygiene, avoiding risky foods, and washing your hands when you’ve been in contact with animals, can tremendously lower your chances of getting E. coli.