Escherichia coli, better known as E. coli bacteria, normally live in the intestines of people and animals. But while most E. coli are harmless — and even part of a healthy human intestinal tract — some are more dangerous and can cause illness.
One in six Americans will get sick from food poisoning this year alone, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While most people will recover without any lasting effects from their illness, the effects for some can be devastating and even deadly.
Symptoms of E. coli poisoning often mirror a viral infection, but many times are more severe and persist longer, says emergency medicine specialist John Tafuri, MD.
Eating undercooked meat or contaminated produce is the most common cause of E. coli poisoning, Dr. Tafuri says. It also is possible to become infected from fruit and vegetables that have been contaminated by animal fecal matter, he says.
Symptoms of E. coli poisoning include stomach cramping and diarrhea. These symptoms surface three to five days after you ingest the contaminated food.
In severe cases, diarrhea may become bloody, in which case Dr. Tafuri advises seeking medical attention immediately.
Ingesting E. coli poses a risk to everyone. But Dr Tafuri warns that those with a weakened immune systems — older adults, children, chemotherapy patients and pregnant women — need to be especially careful.
“Children, in particular, tend to develop complications of E. coli infections,” Dr Tafuri says. “Sometimes these can be life-threatening and because children are at particular risk, we need to be very concerned about them.”
E. coli can lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome, in which the toxins produced from diarrhoea can get into the bloodstream and damage the kidneys, Dr Tafuri says. This condition can be lethal for children.
While supportive treatment can be very helpful, prevention is the No. 1 strategy against E. coli poisoning, Dr. Tafuri says. That means proper precautions at home when handling meat and uncooked food.
“Preventing the illness from the start by thorough cooking, thorough hygiene as far how you cut your meat, and the utensils, and items you use, is the most important thing,” Dr. Tafuri says. “If you prevent the illness in the first place, you avoid having to worry about treating it down the road.”
Here, courtesy of the CDC, are ways you can avoid E Coli poisoning at home
Wash your hands, surfaces and utensils often. Wash your hands — both sides, between the fingers and under the nails — with soap and water for 20 seconds under running water. Wash surfaces and utensils with hot, soapy water after each use. In food preparation, wash fruits and vegetables — but not meat, poultry or eggs.
Separate foods to avoid cross-contamination. Use separate cutting boards and plates for produce and for meat, poultry, seafood and eggs. Keep meat, poultry, seafood and eggs separate from all other foods in your grocery cart and bags. And keep these foods separate from all other foods in the fridge.
Cook correctly. Use a food thermometer and cook food to the proper temperature. Keep food hot — at 140 degrees or higher — after cooking. Microwave food thoroughly — to 165 degrees — and be sure to stir halfway through the cooking time and observe a recipe’s standing time after microwaving.
Refrigerate foods promptly and properly. Refrigerate perishable foods within two hours. Never thaw or marinate foods on the counter. And know when to throw food out.