E. Coli Intestinal Infection

Meat thermometer.

E. coli (Escherichia coli) is a common bacteria found in the environment, foods, and intestines of people and animals. There are a few types (strains) of E. coli. Most are harmless. But some types are harmful. They can cause severe illness because they make a toxin called Shiga. These types of E. coli are called STEC (Shiga toxin-producing E. coli). The most common STEC in the U.S. is a type of E. coli called O157. In some cases STEC can cause life-threatening symptoms such as a type of kidney failure (hemolytic uremic syndrome).

You can be infected with E. coli by swallowing food or water that have the bacteria. Contamination occurs when food or water comes in contact with stool from infected humans and animals. The foods that have been affected in E. coli outbreaks include:

  • Meat (especially ground beef)

  • Sprouts

  • Lettuce

  • Onions

  • Spinach

  • Salami

  • Unpasteurized milk and juice

Petting zoos and county fairs are places where people can become easily infected with E. coli. That's because live animals and human food are together in one place.

Common symptoms of E. coli infection

Symptoms often appear  2 to 5 days after having the contaminated food or drink. They include:

  • Watery or bloody diarrhea

  • Severe belly (abdominal) cramps

  • Upset stomach (nausea) and vomiting

  • Fever, often less than 101°F (38.3°C) 

Diagnosing E. coli infection

A sample of your stool is checked for the presence of E. coli.

Treating E. coli infection

E. coli infection generally gets better without treatment in  8 to10 days. Antibiotic medicines are often not prescribed. Don't take antidiarrheal medicine unless your healthcare provider tells you to. It can make the illness last longer and decrease your body’s ability to get rid of E. coli. While you are recovering, rest and drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Water, clear soups, and electrolyte solutions are good choices. You can buy electrolyte solutions at the grocery store or pharmacy. Don't drink alcohol, coffee, tea, and milk. These can irritate your intestines and make symptoms worse.

When to call your healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider if you have:

  • No improvement in symptoms after  2 days

  • Blood in stool

  • Severe vomiting

  • Severe belly pain

  • Signs of fluid loss (dehydration) such as a dry and sticky mouth, decreased urine output, very dark urine, and confusion

  • Feeling very tired

Preventing E. coli infection

Follow these steps to lower the chances of getting or passing E. coli infection:

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water often. Do this before making meals, and after going to the bathroom, changing diapers, or handling pets. Teach your child to do the same.

  • Cook meats to a safe temperature to kill E. coli bacteria that may be present in the meat. Use a food thermometer when cooking. Follow these temperature guidelines:

    • Cook ground meat (beef, veal, pork, lamb) and meat mixtures to at least 160°F (71°C).

    • Cook fresh beef, veal, lamb, and pork (steak, roasts, chops) to at least 145°F (63°C).

    • Cook poultry (including ground turkey and chicken) to an internal temperature of at least 165°F (74°C).

  • Wash or peel fruits and vegetables before eating.

  • Drink only pasteurized milk, juices, and ciders.

  • Use one cutting board just for uncooked meat. Wash cutting boards and utensils with hot water and soap after each use. Clean kitchen counters with hot water and soap after each use.

  • Don’t swallow or drink water from pools, lakes, streams, or rivers. When camping, or traveling outside the country, don't drink or cook with water unless you know it’s safe. If you need to drink or cook with water you are not sure of, boil it for at least  60 seconds before using it. Or bring a portable water filter specially made to remove bacteria. Or bring special drinking water purification tablets that can kill bacteria in drinking water.

  • If you drink well water, have it tested once a year for germs, including E. coli.

  • When visiting petting zoos or county fairs, bring plenty of hand sanitizer. In addition to using hand-washing facilities, use the hand gel often. Use it especially after touching animals. And before and after handling food. Help young children clean their hands well.