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How to Prevent Harmful Infections

Preventing E. Coli

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Be sure to wash all fruits and vegetables to get rid of potentially harmful bacteria.

People suffering from E. coli develop hemorrhagic colitis, which is an acute disease that causes severe abdominal pain and diarrhea, among other symptoms. Below, we'll tell you how to take preventative measures against this bacterial infection.

E. Coli Information

E. coli, or Escherichia coli O157:H7, is one of the many bacteria normally found in the intestines of animals, including people, and excreted in bowel movements. This particular strain (O157) is not normally found in the human intestine and poses significant risks to those who become infected by it. The bacterium can be found in the stool of cattle, especially during summer months.


Unlike other milder strains of E. coli, E. coli O157 produces a toxin that damages the intestinal lining and causes an acute disease called hemorrhagic colitis. During a bout of hemorrhagic colitis, a person experiences severe abdominal pain; diarrhea that progresses from watery to bloody; occasional vomiting; and, when the disease is at its worst, kidney failure.

A high fever typically accompanies these symptoms in other infections, but it is surprisingly absent in cases of E. coli O157 infection. The illness runs its course in about eight days. Children are especially susceptible to E. coli O157 complications, which might cause kidney failure.

E. coli O157 is spread through water or food that is directly or indirectly contaminated with animal (usually cattle) feces. Unwashed fruits or vegetables, undercooked beef (especially ground beef), and unpasteurized milk are frequent vehicles for the bacterium. It also can spread person to person when people don't wash their hands often enough and through swimming in contaminated water.

Who's at Risk for E. Coli?

Anyone can become infected with E. coli O157, but the most serious complications develop in children younger than 5 and in the elderly. In these populations, the infection can lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome, a complication that causes the kidneys to fail.

Defensive Measures Against E. Coli

Although undercooked hamburger has often been implicated in E. coli O157 outbreaks, other foods also have been blamed, including alfalfa sprouts, cheese curds, unpasteurized fruit juices, dry-cured salami, lettuce, and game meat. However, any food product eaten raw or contaminated by raw meat could be infected. Outbreaks have also occurred through direct exposure to animals in petting zoos.

But before you start investing in high-power microscopes to examine all the food that comes into your kitchen, keep in mind that you can significantly cut your risk of E. coli O157 infection by taking a few simple precautions:

  • Soap up. Washing your hands thoroughly and frequently helps protect you from contracting E. coli O157 from infected people, who may unknowingly share the bacteria. Good hand washing is especially important between family members in households where diapers are changed and toddlers need assistance after using the bathroom. If you visit a petting zoo with kids, be sure they look but don't touch and practice good hand washing.
  • Thoroughly cook ground beef. Ground beef is a particular risk because meat from many different cows is mixed together by the ton, and it only takes a small amount of E. coli O157 to spoil a whole batch. Contaminated meat won't look, smell, or taste odd. Use a meat thermometer to ensure ground beef is cooked to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit throughout. And when at a restaurant, don't hesitate to send back a pink hamburger, and ask for a new plate and bun, too.
  • Clean up after raw meat. Wash all surfaces, counters, utensils, and cutting boards used during the preparation of raw meats, and be sure to keep raw meat separate from other ingredients.
  • Choose pasteurized products. Avoid drinking raw (unpasteurized) milk. If E. coli bacteria are present on a cow's udder or on milking equipment, the bacteria could pass into raw milk supplies. Unpasteurized fruit and vegetable juices also could be contaminated with E. coli O157.
  • Run some water. You should wash all raw fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them, but think twice about consuming even washed alfalfa sprouts. According to the CDC, the very young, the elderly, and the immunocompromised should not eat them at all because of their tendency to harbor E. coli O157.

While the cause of mad cow disease is still being debated, there are some solid prevention measures you can take against it. Learn about them in the next section.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.