ALERT: CDC, USDA-FSIS, and several states are investigating an outbreak of E. coli O103 infections from ground beef. Handle ground beef safely and cook it thoroughly to prevent illness. If you have symptoms of E. coli (severe stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea, vomiting), talk to your healthcare provider.
Although most kinds of E. coli are harmless, some can make you sick. Learn about the kinds of E. coli that cause diarrhea,and what you can do to help lower your chances of infection.
What are Escherichia coli?
Escherichia coli (abbreviated E. coli) are bacteria found in the intestines of people and animals and in the environment; they can also be found in foods.
Most E. coli are harmless and are part of a healthy intestinal tract. However, some cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, bloodstream infections, and other illnesses. The types of E. coli that can cause illness are spread through contaminated food or water and through contact with animals or people.
Two types of E. coli that cause diarrheal illness diagnosed in the United States are Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) and enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC).
STEC are a group of E. coli that produce Shiga toxin. This toxin causes people to have diarrhea, which can be bloody. When you hear reports about outbreaks of E. coli infections in the United States, they’re usually talking about a type called STEC O157.
ETEC are the leading cause of traveler’s diarrhea and a major cause of diarrhea around the world, especially among children.
About 5–10% of people diagnosed with STEC O157 infection develop a life-threatening complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS)external icon, a type of kidney failure. Signs that a person is developing HUS include:
People with HUS should be hospitalized because their kidneys may stop working and they may develop other serious problems. Most people with HUS recover within a few weeks, but some suffer permanent health problems or die.
Anyone can get sick from harmful E. coli, but some people have an increased chance of infection. These people are:
STEC: Most people have bloody diarrhea and stomach cramps that may be severe. Some people may also have vomiting. A high fever is uncommon. Symptoms usually last 5–7 days.
ETEC: Most people have stomach cramps and watery diarrhea. Symptoms usually last 3–4 days.
Contact your healthcare provider if you have diarrhea or vomiting that lasts for more than 2 days, bloody stools, a fever higher than 102˚F, or signs of dehydration (including little or no urination, excessive thirst, a very dry mouth, dizziness or lightheadedness, or very dark urine).
Most people with an E. coli infection will recover without any specific treatment. Whether your doctor prescribes antibiotics depends on several factors, including the kind of E. coli infection you have and the severity of your infection.
Antibiotics should not be used to treat STEC infection. Taking certain antibiotics may lead to the production or release of more Shiga toxin, which can increase the chance of kidney damage.
You can’t tell whether meat is safely cooked by looking at its color.
Problem: One in four burgers turns brown before it has reached the safe internal temperature of 160°F.
Solution: Use a food thermometer to check that it’s safe to eat.