Lately, it seems you can’t pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV without hearing about an Escherichia coli infection outbreak. E.coli is not new, but now it seems to be spreading beyond hamburger meat and into just about everything – spinach, carrot juice, water, etc.
Chances are you are either doing or eating something that exposes you to this nasty bacterium, and the last thing you want is to become infected, as the damage to your health can be enormous and sometimes deadly. So if you want to learn more about this bacteria and how you can minimize your exposure, keep reading.
What Is It?
According to the CDC, E.coli is a group of bacterium that is most commonly found in the intestines of farm animals – cows, deer, goats, and sheep. Ground beef seems to be especially susceptible to E.coli, as the exposure to intestinal waste is high, common and likely occurs during the butchering process. This is why undercooking beef is not recommended, as it is the only sure way to rid the meat of the bacteria. Once the E.coli gets into your body, it can cause serious damage and discomfort – severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps are the most common symptoms.
How Do You Get It?
The most common source comes from eating undercooked hamburger meat. Since there is no way to taste or smell E.coli, you won’t know if you have ingested it until you start to show symptoms. You can also get it from eating unwashed vegetables. Bean sprouts have been a transmission source for years, and lately juice, lettuce, carrots, and spinach have also been identified as being at risk for contamination. This occurs from contaminated water being used in growing these products.
Infected people are a known transmission source. This occurs two common ways: first by children who contract E.coli and are not as conscious with their hygiene as adults, second by infected adults who are handling food. In both cases, practicing good hygiene can prevent the spread of the disease. This means thoroughly washing your hands after a trip to the washroom, and prior to food preparation. Remember – E.coli can end up on lots of surfaces – door handles, cups, utensils, counter tops. If you have someone in the home who contracts E.coli, you need to keep these areas disinfected for several weeks after the symptoms pass.
Wastewater flowing into and mixing with swimming areas is another common source for E.coli. Concentrations are monitored in and around beaches in North America, but this is not the case in a lot of vacation destinations. Plus, the safe E.coli level in other countries is often a much higher count than what would close a beach down in North America. So you need to be very wary about the water when you are in foreign countries. And you have to pay attention to E.coli levels at your favourite beach. Avoid drinking the water you are swimming in. Even allowing your pet to swim in a contaminated lake could cause you to get sick, as the fur will become saturated with E.coli.
Cattle farms have lots of E.coli in the soil and in the animals. The waste from cattle can mix with the ground water and then affect a drinking well. If you live on or near a farm, you should be especially conscious of this threat. Many farmers spread fresh manure from large hog and cattle operations directly onto their land, and the runoff from those fields is know to have contaminated lakes, rivers, streams, and water supplies.
There is a chance you have contracted E.coli and have not had any noticeable symptoms. But in those cases where the symptoms begin to appear, medical attention should be sought. The timeline looks like this:
- 2-8 days: from contraction to illness
- 5-9 days: length of illness
- 7-14 days: length of time after the illness when you can still infect others
The most common symptoms are:
- Upset stomach and nothing else.
- Bloody diarrhea and severe abdominal cramps.
- Kidney failure from hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS)
In all cases except the third scenario, full recovery is common. But if you develop HUS, then there are extremely serious health effects, many of which are chronic.
Food Handling – make sure you are very careful when it comes to cooking and handling ground beef. Never eat it undercooked, and do not eat off of anything that has come into contact with the uncooked meat or juices. Be careful you are not using the same flipper to put raw patties on the grill and to take cooked ones off.
Eating Out – make sure your hamburger is fully cooked. Under no circumstances should you eat an undercooked burger, so don’t be shy about sending it back.
Kitchen Cleanliness – At least once a week wipe all surfaces down with a strong disinfectant. You might be surprised to know that there’s more fecal bacteria in kitchen sinks then there is in bathroom toilets. Unthawing hamburger meat can lead to spillage and dripping within a fridge, so make sure the meat is on the bottom shelf and not coming into contact with other foods.
Pasteurization Kills E.coli – You might want to avoid health food products that sell fresh, non-pasteurized products. Most large department stores only sell pasteurized products, but check the label if you are not sure.
Swimming – Know the E.coli count before you jump into a lake. When you are unsure, then just assume that the water has some level of E.coli and use caution. Don’t drink the water, spit it, swallow it, etc. Make sure you clean yourself thoroughly when you are done swimming, especially your hands.
Personal Hygiene – Not washing your hands after a trip to the bathroom, or picking up E.coli from the bathroom are common ways of spreading E.coli. If you have E.coli, avoid public places for a few weeks so you don’t spread it to others.
Now that you know a little more about E.coli, you can take precautions to make sure you or someone in your home doesn’t end up with it.