Monday, 1 October 2012

Understanding E. Coli

With the current outbreaks of E. Coli in Alberta, it would be a good idea to familiarize yourself with the basics of this infection.

What does the “E” stand for?
E. Coli refers to Escherichia Coli, a bacteria that is found in the intestines of most healthy people and animals. When you hear talk of an infectious type of E. Coli, this refers to a strain of the bacteria identified as E. Coli 0157:H7 . This is the illness-causing strain that most of us have heard of. While we typically think of cattle when we think of animals that may carry the infectious strain, it has also been found in deer, sheep, goats, and other animals.

How long has E. Coli been around?
E. Coli was first identified in 1982, when an outbreak causing illness prompted research. The findings traced the bacteria back to hamburgers that had the 0157:H7 strain in them.

What are the symptoms of E. Coli?
This really varies from individual to individual. Some infected people are completely asymptomatic. For those that do have symptoms, they range from mild diarrhea, to severe diarrhea that is accompanied with blood. Symptoms of nausea and vomiting are common as well. Fever is not a good indication of infection in this case, since there is usually only a mild fever or none at all.

Is it fatal?
E. Coli in and of itself is not a deadly infection. However, with complications it can be. This would not be the case in a typically healthy individual though, and is not very common.

Who is at risk for contracting E. Coli?
While E. Coli infections can affect anybody who is exposed to the bacteria, those who are elderly, as well as children under the age of five, are at greatest risk.

How does a person catch E. Coli?
The most common means of getting E. Coli are through the consumption of undercooked meat, drinking unpasteurized milk or juice, swallowing contaminated water (drinking water, pool water, natural bodies of water), or by eating raw leafy vegetables (like spinach or lettuce) that has been contaminated with E. Coli.

Are people infected with E. Coli contagious?
Since human waste carries E. Coli in it, if an infected person neglects to wash their hands well, they can be passing along the infection. Moreover, even long after an infected individual's symptoms have passed, they continue to shed the bacteria in their waste, so proper hand washing is important even long after the symptoms have subsided.

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