What Is E. Coli?

By Michele C. Hollow @michelechollow
September 25, 2017

After reports of food recalls due to E. Coli outbreaks at restaurant chains, many of us are asking “what is E .coli?” and "is it harmful?"

E Coli outbreaks at Taco Bell and Chipolte have customers staying away. Some of the news can be frightening. An E. Coli outbreak at the restaurant chain Chipolte had many people asking themselves “what is E. Coli?” and “is it harmful?”


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What is E. Coli?

E. Coli, also known as Escherichia Coli, are bacteria that live in our intestines. They are actually good bacteria that live in the intestines of humans and warm-blooded animals. We need E. Coli to break down and digest the foods we eat.

Most of these bacteria are harmless. However, some E. Coli can make us sick. One in particular is Shiga toxin-producing E. Coli (STEC), which causes food poisoning.

We can get food poisoning when we eat raw or undercooked ground meat products, raw milk, vegetables, and sprouts that are contaminated with the Shiga toxin strain.

Symptoms of food poisoning

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Bloody or watery diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain and cramps
  • Fever

These symptoms can occur within a few hours after eating contaminated food or start a few days or weeks after consuming a contaminated meal. Food poisoning can last from a couple of hours to several days.

E. Coli infection can also be transmitted through contaminated water. E. Coli in water is often unsafe. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, harmful strains of these bacteria in water occur from contact with feces from infected humans or animals. Waste enters the water through sewage overflows, improperly working sewer systems, polluted storm water runoff, and agriculture runoff. Well water can also contain this harmful strain of E. Coli.

If you contract a harmful strain of this bacteria, you should watch for bloody diarrhea, dehydration, unusually pale skin, bruising, decreased urine output, and kidney failure. If any of these symptoms occur, call your doctor. Pregnant women, older adults, young children, and people with weak immune systems are vulnerable for developing these symptoms.

E. Coli urine infection

E. Coli can cause urinary tract infections, which are common and affect the bladder and urethra. According to a report in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, the bacteria are responsible for 85 percent of all urinary tract infections, and more women get UTIs than men.

Urinary tract infections caused by E. Coli can become serious when left untreated. If E. Coli bacteria make their way into your kidneys an infection can occur and cause permanent damage to your kidneys.

If you think you have a urinary tract infection, your doctor will most likely order a urinalysis and urine culture to confirm the problem and prescribe antibiotics. However, some strains of E. Coli are resistant to antibiotics. Talk to your doctor about treatment.

Is E. Coli contagious?

The short answer is yes. You can get E. Coli when an infected person doesn’t wash their hands after having a bowel movement. If this person touches you or prepares food that you eat, you can become infected.

The bacteria are also contagious to people who work with farm animals such as cows, sheep, and goats. If a farmer comes into contact with the feces of an infected animal, he can get it.

How to prevent E. Coli infection

The solution is simple: wash your hands with soapy water and wash often, especially after being in contact with farm animals or when preparing food.

You can also get E. Coli infection if you improperly handle food. If you are buying meats and vegetables at a grocery store or preparing them at home, be sure to:

Wash your hands before preparing or eating food.

  • Make sure all utensils, cutting board, and plates are clean.
  • If you cut meat on a cutting board thoroughly, wash it before chopping other items on it.
  • Make sure all dairy products and food are stored at the right temperature.
  • Make sure all foods are cooked at the right temperature and duration. Partially cooked meats and poultry can contain this bacteria.
  • If you eat raw fish (sushi), make sure it’s purchased at a reputable restaurant.
  • Unpasteurized milk can contain E Coli.
  • Your doctor can confirm if you have an E. Coli infection by testing a stool sample.

How to treat E. Coli

Once you can answer the question, “what is E, Coli?” you can take various steps to treat it. If you have food poisoning, you should get plenty of rest and drink a lot of fluids to avoid dehydration. Don’t take anti-diarrhea medicine because it will slow your digestive system and prevent your body from ridding itself of any toxins.

If you have a more harmful strain, you will be hospitalized and given IV fluids, blood transfusions, and possibly kidney dialysis.


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March 26, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN