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What is E. Coli?

Paulla Estes
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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E. coli is the abbreviated version of Escherichia coli, a bacterium found in the lower intestines of mammals and birds. Although it is necessary intestinal bacteria that helps with the digestion of food, it can be very dangerous if ingested. If a person inadvertently ingests the bacteria, the resulting infection is called E. coli enteritis, which causes the small intestine to become inflamed.

People can contract an E. coli infection by drinking contaminated water, eating fruit or vegetables that have been watered with contaminated water, drinking unpasteurized milk, or eating undercooked ground meat. The infection can also be caught by coming into contact with others who are infected or by working in environments where one might come into contact with human or animal feces, such as farms, day care centers, nursing homes, or hospitals. The most common way to contract an infection is by eating hamburgers that are not fully cooked. The symptoms are primarily acute diarrhea that may or may not be bloody, severe stomach cramps, bloating, and gas. While these are the most prevalent symptoms, many people infected with E. coli might also experience continuous abdominal pain, loss of appetite, fever, and in rare cases, vomiting.

A positive E. coli infection is diagnosed by a stool culture. The culture must be taken within the first two days of the onset of severe or bloody diarrhea. Although the diarrhea is unpleasant and often painful, most medical professionals do not prescribe medicine to make it stop. The diarrhea must continue to rid the body of the bacteria. Usually, when someone is diagnosed with an infection, he or she is hospitalized and watched for dehydration. Treatment involves drinking lots of water and often taking fluids intravenously.

If a positive diagnosis for this bacteria has been confirmed, the infected person will be extremely contagious. People with E. coli should not touch or be in close contact with other people until they have had two negative stool cultures. This means that children, day care workers, and nursing home workers who are infected should stay home until they are completely cured.

The best way to deal with E. coli is to prevent infection before it occurs. There are two primary means of preventing infection. The first is to wash hands thoroughly before and after cooking, as well as after using the restroom, changing a diaper, or handling raw meat. The second is to cook ground beef thoroughly, until there is no evidence of pink, even in the center. Other ways to avoid this bacteria are to clean dishes and counter tops that have been touched by raw meat, defrost meat in the refrigerator rather than on the counter top, and refrigerate leftovers right away.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Paulla Estes
By Paulla Estes , Writer
Based in Maine, Paulla Estes is a freelance writer and website editor with a B.A. in English Literature from George Mason University. With over 15 years of experience in the field, Paulla appreciates the flexibility and consistency that comes with contributing to The Health Board. She relishes the opportunity to continuously learn new things while crafting informative and engaging articles for readers.

Discussion Comments

By anon327317 — On Mar 27, 2013

Is e-coli in equines contagious? I would appreciate knowing asap if anyone knows.

By anon313855 — On Jan 14, 2013

Is there only one kind of ecoli and is it serious, like life or death?

By anon267019 — On May 08, 2012

No. I know many people who defrost meat on the counter. My mother used to do it, but I personally never do. Just because you can develop the virus, doesn't mean that you always will if this method is used. However, it's better to be safe than sorry.

By sunshine31 — On Mar 05, 2011

Oasis11 - Wow, that must have been awful. I always wash my hands whenever I cook. I think that keeping a clean kitchen and handling meat in a safe way helps to lower the chance of developing e coli.

I have an aunt who always cooked her meals at home and never wanted to go to a restaurant because she says that she could not determine how the food was prepared and was afraid of developing the e coli virus or some form of food poisoning that would make her sick.

By oasis11 — On Mar 04, 2011

Subway11 - You know I recently did a mystery shop for a fast food company and one of the questions involved the temperature of the burger.

It had to be hot to the touch and not lukewarm because that can cause it to have the e coli virus. I never eat meat that is not hot or thoroughly cooked.

In fact, my steaks may not be the juiciest but I least I know that I will not be developing any e coli virus symptoms because of it.

I also throw out milk on the due date in order to avoid food poisoning.

It is also important if you travel internationally to drink bottled water and be careful what you order.

My sister went to Chile and became really sick due to food poisoning because she orders some fish that must have been bad. She could not stop vomiting. It is better to order noodle dishes are entrees that have a lower incidence of developing the e coli virus so you won't get sick abroad.

By subway11 — On Mar 03, 2011

Anon142684 - I don’t know if that is true, but I do know that if meat is cooked at high temperatures for a considerable amount of time my understanding is that the bacteria would have died because of the high temperatures.

I sometimes defrost meat while under a running faucet but I have never left it out on the counter for extended periods of time.

What you can do just to be safe is thaw the meat on a covered plate and leave it marinating in the refrigerator. This way you know that the food is safe.

By anon142684 — On Jan 13, 2011

I have been having a discussion with a friend of mine, who swears by defrosting meat out on the counter you will positively get E. coli. Is this true?

Paulla Estes

Paulla Estes


Based in Maine, Paulla Estes is a freelance writer and website editor with a B.A. in English Literature from George...
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