Escherichia coli (abbreviated as E. coli) are a large and diverse group of bacteria. Although most strains of E. coli are harmless, others can make you sick. Some kinds of E. coli can cause diarrhea, while others cause urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia, and other illnesses. Still other kinds of E. coli are used as markers for water contamination—so you might hear about E. coli being found in drinking water, which are not themselves harmful, but indicate the water is contaminated. It does get a bit confusing—even to microbiologists.
Who gets E-Coli infections?
People of any age can become infected. Very young children and the elderly are more likely to develop severe illness and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) than others, but even healthy older children and young adults can become seriously ill.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of STEC infections vary for each person but often include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody), and vomiting. If there is fever, it usually is not very high (less than 101˚F/less than 38.5˚C). Most people get better within 5–7 days. Some infections are very mild, but others are severe or even life-threatening.
What are the complications?
Around 5–10% of those who are diagnosed with STEC infection develop a potentially life-threatening complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Clues that a person is developing HUS include decreased frequency of urination, feeling very tired, and losing pink color in cheeks and inside the lower eyelids. Persons with HUS should be hospitalized because their kidneys may stop working and they may develop other serious problems. Most persons with HUS recover within a few weeks, but some suffer permanent damage or die.
Should an infected person be excluded from school or work?
School and work exclusion policies differ by local jurisdiction. Check with your local or state health department to learn more about the laws where you live. In any case, good hand-washing after changing diapers, after using the toilet, and before preparing food is essential to prevent the spread of these and many other infections.
How long can an infected person carry STEC?
STEC typically disappear from the feces by the time the illiness is resolved, but may be shed for several weeks, even after symptoms go away. Young children tend to carry STEC longer than adults. A few people keep shedding these bacteria for several months. Good hand-washing is always a smart idea to protect yourself, your family, and other persons.
What is the best treatment for STEC infection?
Non-specific supportive therapy, including hydration, is important. Antibiotics should not be used to treat this infection. There is no evidence that treatment with antibiotics is helpful, and taking antibiotics may increase the risk of HUS. Antidiarrheal agents like Imodium® may also increase that risk.