E. coli Contamination and Prevention: What You Need to Know

With so much in the news lately about the widespread E. coli outbreak across multiple states — with Pennsylvania leading in the number of confirmed cases — you might have some questions about what this bacteria is and how you can avoid infection. Here, we provide the answers to some of the most common questions about E. coli.

What Is E. coli?

Escherichia coli, abbreviated as E. coli, is a type of bacteria that is found in the intestines of healthy humans and animals. While most strains of this bacteria are harmless or only cause mild symptoms, a few strains can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea, vomiting, kidney failure, and death. E. coli O157:H7 is known to be one of the deadliest strains, especially among children and older adults.

Sources of E. coli Exposure

The two most common sources of E. coli exposure are contaminated food and water. When animals are slaughtered for consumption, the E. coli bacteria that lives in their intestines can come into contact with the meat and could spread the infection to humans who ingest it. This is especially problematic with a product like ground beef, which could contain meat from a number of different animals, thus increasing the risk of exposure.

It is possible to become infected with E. coli bacteria through personal contact with humans or animals.

Similarly, water and vegetables can become contaminated due to runoff from animal farms and/or human waste. If you have well water, you could be at a greater risk for contamination because wells do not have a disinfecting system. However, public water systems can also become contaminated with E. coli, despite filtration and sanitization efforts.

Risk Factors for E. coli Complications

Although healthy adults can recover from E. coli O157:H7 infection within about one week, people with high risk factors can experience very severe symptoms that could develop into serious complications. Some of the biggest risk factors for developing complications due to E. coli exposure include:

  • Age. Young children and older adults are at the greatest risk for developing complications.
  • People with weakened immune systems. People taking immunosuppressant medications or who have weakened immune systems for other reasons could be at a greater risk.
  • Time of year. Experts aren’t sure why, but most of the cases of E. coli outbreaks in the United States tend to occur in June through September.
  • Decreased stomach acid. People taking medications to reduce stomach acid, such as esomeprazole, pantoprazole, and lansoprazole, could be at an increased risk for infection because stomach acid offers some protection against E. coli.

How to Prevent the Spread of E. coli Bacteria

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to help prevent E. coli infection.

  • Do not eat undercooked beef. Make sure hamburgers and other ground beef is cooked until it reaches 160°F. Keep in mind that just because you don’t see any pink doesn’t necessarily mean that the meat is fully cooked. Beef can brown before it’s cooked.
  • Drink pasteurized milk and juice. Unpasteurized milk, juice, and cider is more likely to contain harmful bacteria.
  • Wash produce before eating. Carefully wash produce to remove all dirt before eating it. Although this won’t necessarily kill all bacteria that could be living on produce, it can significantly reduce the amount.
  • Wash your hands. Since bacteria can be spread through contact, be sure to wash your hands after handling or touching animals and before preparing meals and eating. Make sure children wash their hands properly as well.
  • Avoid cross-contamination. When preparing foods, keep raw foods and utensils separate from cooked foods and utensils. Always wash utensils, cutting boards, and your hands with soap and water after handling raw meat.

In Summary

When E. coli outbreaks are reported in our community, it can be alarming. However, following these tips for preventing the spread of the bacteria and avoiding purchasing potentially contaminated food can help to keep you and your family safe and healthy.

For now, experts are urging Pennsylvania residents to avoid eating romaine lettuce that could have originated from the Yuma, Arizona growing region until a more specific source is identified. If you have additional questions or concerns, please feel free to contact us online or call us at (724) 295-3157.

If you or a family member are experiencing severe diarrhea, vomiting, or other symptoms, contact your doctor immediately.