Infectious Diseases A-Z: E. coli 101
What Is E. Coli?
Escherichia coli, orE. coli, is a type of bacteria commonly found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals, including humans.
The vast majority ofE. colistrains are harmless, or even beneficial.
For instance,E. coliproduces vitamins K and B6, and maintains a protective space in your gut for other beneficial bacteria.
However, some strains ofE. colican cause sickness and severe complications.
If the bacteria enter your urinary tract, they can cause a urinary tract infection (UTI) — in fact,E. coliis behind more than 85 percent of all UTIs, according to a 2012 report in the journalEmerging Infectious Diseases.
WhenE. colifinds its way into the lungs, it can cause respiratory illness and, in rare cases, pneumonia.
According to the Meningitis Research Foundation,E. coliis the cause of about 20 percent of all cases of neonatal meningitis, a potentially deadly infection of the membranes lining an infant's brain and spinal cord.
ButE. coliis perhaps best known for its role in intestinal infections and outbreaks of food poisoning.
E. ColiFood Poisoning
The most common food poisoning pathogens in the United States are the norovirus, which causes about 5.5 million cases of food poisoning each year, followed by the bacteria Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter, and Staphylococcus aureus.
But you can also get food poisoning from Escherichia coli, or E. coli.
A type of E. coli called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, or STEC, causes about 176,000 cases of foodborne illnesses each year — approximately 36 percent of these cases are due to a specific strain called O157:H7 (or O157), according to a 2011 article in the CDC-published journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Additionally, O157 is responsible for about 4 percent of all food poisoning hospitalizations by pathogenic microorganisms, the study found.
Cattle are the most common reservoirs forE. coli, which can get into people when they eat food that's contaminated with the animals' bacteria-carrying feces.
Typical sources of contamination include:
- Ground beef
- Unpasteurized dairy products and juices, including apple juice
- Produce exposed to water runoff from cattle farms
- Well water or open water (lakes, rivers) frequented by animals
People can also passE. colito you if they touch your food or you (and you don't wash your hands before eating).
Additionally, you may getE. coliin your system if you ingest water while swimming in a contaminated lake, river, or swimming pool.
You'll start to experience the effects of anE. coliintestinal infection 2 to 5 days after the bacteria get into your system.
Symptoms of anE. coli gut infection include:
- Diarrhea, which can be severe and bloody
- Severe stomach cramps
Less-common symptoms include vomiting and low-grade fever. Most healthy adults recover from an STEC infection completely after about a week without any medical attention.
E. ColiInfections in Children
As is the case with adults, pathogenic E. coli in children most commonly causes food poisoning and urinary tract infections (UTIs).
UTIs affect about 3 percent of all children in the United States and result in more than 1 million pediatrician visits each year, according to National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Because of their anatomy, girls are four times more likely to get a UTI than boys.
Uncircumcised boys younger than 6 months old are also more likely to get a UTI than circumcised boys of the same age, according to the NIH.
Escherichia coliis also responsible for about 20 percent of neonatal meningitis (an infection of the membranes surrounding an infant's brain and spinal cord), according to the Meningitis Research Foundation.
Toddlers can pass the bacteria to their playmates (especially if they're not potty trained), and adults can pass it to other children if they don't wash their hands after changing a child's diapers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
What's more, children can still spread E. coli to other people for 2 weeks after they've gotten over their sickness, the CDC reports.
E. Coliand Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS)
About 5 to 15 percent of STEC infections lead to a life-threatening condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), in which the bacteria's toxins destroy red blood cells.
Young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to experience severe STEC symptoms or get HUS, according to a 2012 report in the journal Toxins.
People who take antibiotics to treat anE. coliinfection are also at an increased risk for HUS, the report notes.
Initial symptoms of HUS are mostly similar to a normalE. coliintestinal infection, but the later stages of the syndrome can cause pale skin, jaundice, and skin bruising.
Left untreated, HUS can cause permanent kidney damage and kidney failure.
Complications from E. Coli Intestinal Infections
With rest and lots of water, most healthy adults recover from an E. coli infection within a week.
But if you don't replenish the fluid you lose from diarrhea and vomiting, you could become dehydrated. Initially, dehydration only causes mild symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, and muscle aches.
However, severe dehydration can result in more serious health issues, including dizziness, delirium, rapid heartbeat, and cardiac and kidney problems.
It can potentially cause seizures, permanent brain damage, and death.
Complications from UTIs
Doctors treat UTIs with antibiotics. However, complications can arise if the infection isn't detected early, or if the antibiotics don't work (some types of E. coli are resistant to most currently available antibiotics).
If the bacteria spread throughout the urinary system, they can cause kidney infections.
These infections can result in permanent kidney damage, which often lead to kidney scars, decreased kidney function, and high blood pressure.
A kidney infection, if severe enough, could also cause kidney failure.
In the most severe cases, UTIs can lead to a blood infection called sepsis, or septicemia, which can cause the blood pressure to drop.
With poor blood flow, major organs and body systems will stop working properly — and without treatment, the disease can ultimately cause death.
Video: Mayo Clinic Minute: E. coli Fast Facts
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