The term E. coli is enough to strike fear into most people. We all worry about food poisoning, especially in situations where we don't have control: i.e. restaurants and the supermarkets where we buy our food. But not all E. coli contamination is the same. Let’s look at the facts and get a clearer picture.
First of all, E.coli is simply the name for a germ, or bacterium, that lives in the digestive tracts of both humans and animals. There are several types of E. coli, and the majority of them are totally safe and harmless. On the other hand, there are some strains that can cause the serious side effect of bloody diarrhea. These strains are called enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC). If the condition progresses, it can lead to severe anemia or kidney failure, which can lead to death. (Scientists are now trying to find the source of the strain of E.coli that is rampant in Europe.)
One of the most alarming aspects of E. coli is that you can not only be infected by it through contact with the feces or stool of people or animals – but you can also get infected by eating food or drinking water that has been contaminated by feces. This can happen during the processing of meat in plants. Any food that has been in contact with raw meat can also become infected.
It’s not just meat, either. E. coli contamination has been found in milk and other dairy products. Buying products that say “pasteurized” may help to protect you. This means the food has been heated to destroy bacteria. E coli have also been found in raw fruits and vegetables, such as lettuce, cucumbers, alfalfa sprouts and lettuce.
Other danger spots: lakes, pools, and water supplies. People can become infected when a contaminated city or town water supply has not been properly treated with chlorine or when people accidentally swallow contaminated water while swimming.
The good news is that most strains of E coli will usually go away on threir own. You can help yourself by drinking sips of water because the diarrhea can lead to dehydration. This condition is especially serious for the elderly. If you have bloody diarrhea that may be from an E. coli infection, do not take diarrhea medicine or antibiotics. These medicines can slow down the digestion process, allowing more time for your body to absorb the poisons made by the E. coli.
Call your doctor. In some cases, E. coli infection can cause more serious problems with the blood and kidney, and in the most dangerous cases, can be treated with blood transfusions or dialysis.
Since food and water infected with E-coli looks and smells normal, it’s not so easy to prevent contamination. Here are guidelines from the Center for Disease Control (CDC):
Cook all types of beef, but especially ground beef, to at least 160°F (71°C).
In the kitchen, wash your hands with hot, soapy water often, especially after you touch raw meat.
Wash any tools or kitchen surfaces that have touched raw meat.
Use only pasteurized milk, dairy, and juice products.
Use only treated, or chlorinated, drinking water.
When you travel to countries that may have unsafe drinking water, don't use ice or drink tap water. Avoid raw fruits and vegetables, except those with skin that you peel yourself.
Wash your hands often, and always wash them after you use the bathroom.
Robin Westen is ThirdAge’s Medical Reporter. Check for her daily updates.
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