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Escherichia coli or E. coli is a bacteria found in the human intestine. (Read about "Microorganisms") Problems with E.coli arise when the bacteria gets into a place where it shouldn't be, or when we are infected with a dangerous strain of E. coli.
When E. coli gets into a place it shouldn't be, such as the urinary tract (Read about "The Urinary System"), the resulting infection can be quite painful. Urinary tract infections (UTI's) are common, sending people to the doctor over nine and a half million times a year. (Read about "Urinary Tract Infections") E. coli is also a potential cause of sepsis and meningitis in newborns, if they get infected with E. coli found in the birth canal. (Read about "Sepsis" "Encephalitis and Meningitis")
A particular strain of E. coli, Escherichia coli O157:H7 or E. coli 0157:H7, is a leading cause of foodborne illness. FDA says most strains of E. coli are harmless and live in the intestines of healthy humans and animals. (Read about "Digestive System") However, E. coli 0157:H7 produces a powerful toxin and can cause severe illness.
E. coli infection causes gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. (Read about "Gastroenteritis") Infection with this microorganism often leads to bloody diarrhea, and occasionally to kidney failure. (Read about "Diarrhea" "Kidney Disease") CDC says it's most often associated with eating undercooked and/or contaminated ground beef (Read about "Food Safety"), but one person can also spread it to another. Infection can also occur after drinking raw milk and after swimming in or drinking sewage-contaminated water.
E. coli O157:H7 infection often, though not always, causes severe diarrhea and abdominal cramps; the diarrhea can also be bloody. Usually little or no fever is present and the illness resolves in 5 to 10 days. However, in children and seniors, complications can be very serious, even deadly.
CDC says antibiotics should not be used to treat this infection. There is no evidence that antibiotics improve the course of the disease, according to CDC, and it is thought that treatment with some antibiotics could lead to kidney complications. Antidiarrheal agents should also be avoided, according to CDC.
In some persons, particularly children under 5 years of age and the elderly, the infection can also cause a complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), in which the red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail. About 2-7 percent of infections lead to this complication. In the United States, hemolytic uremic syndrome is the principal cause of acute kidney failure in children and most cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome are caused by E. coli O157:H7. (Read about "Kidney Disease")
However, the most common concern with E. coli, especially for children and seniors, is dehydration. (Read about "Dehydration") This happens if the body loses more fluids and salts (electrolytes) than it takes in. Signs of dehydration include a decrease in urine production (Read about "The Urinary System"), extreme thirst, dry mouth and unusual drowsiness. Severe dehydration is a medical emergency and requires immediate care. CDC says special oral rehydration fluids can be purchased at drugstores, and can be used according to the package directions. You should ask your pediatrician what's best in your child's case. If you have any concerns about dehydration, contact your doctor at once. It's also important to call your doctor if there is fever or prolonged vomiting.
It's also a good idea to develop (and help children develop) habits that can reduce the risk of infections like E. coli. The following are suggestions from CDC and the International Food Information Council:
Although you can't guarantee you or your family will never get an infection such as E. coli, you can at least help reduce your risk.
All Concept Communications material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.
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