Escherichia coli (or simply E. coli) is one of the many groups of bacteria that normally live in the intestines of healthy humans and most warm-blooded animals. E. coli bacteria help maintain the balance of normal intestinal bacteria against harmful bacteria.
However, there are hundreds of types or strains of E. coli bacteria. Different strains of E. coli have different characteristics.
One E. coli strain that causes a severe intestinal infection in humans is known as enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC). It’s the most common strain to cause illness in people. It’s different from other E. coli because it produces a potent toxin called Shiga toxin. This toxin damages the lining of the intestinal wall, causing bloody diarrhea.
EHEC is a strain of E. coli that produces a toxin called Shiga toxin. The toxin causes damage to the lining of the intestinal wall. In 1982, EHEC was found as the cause of bloody diarrhea that developed after eating undercooked or raw hamburger meat contaminated with the bacteria. Since that time, outbreaks of EHEC have been linked with other types of foods, such as spinach, lettuce, sprouts, unpasteurized milk, unpasteurized apple juice or apple cider, salami, and well water or surface water areas frequently visited by animals. Outbreaks have also been traced to animals at petting zoos and day care centers.
EHEC is found in the intestines of healthy cattle, goats, deer, and sheep. According to the CDC, the spread of these bacteria to humans may occur in the following manner:
Factors that can increase your risk for getting an EHEC infection include:
An EHEC infection can make you very ill. Symptoms usually begin 2 to 5 days after ingesting contaminated foods or liquids, and may last for up to 8 days or more. The following are some of the most common symptoms associated with EHEC:
EHEC can be confirmed with a stool culture. Stool samples are tested to compare with the source or contaminated food that has caused an outbreak.
If a person develops HUS, hospitalization in an intensive care unit may be required. Treatment may include blood transfusions and kidney dialysis.
If vomiting is moderate to severe, dehydration can occur. Between 5% and 10% of those with an EHEC infection develop hemolytic uremic syndrome. This is a serious complication which may cause the kidneys to stop working due to the destruction of red blood cells and can be life threatening.
CDC recommendations for prevention of the infection include:
If you have diarrhea that lasts longer than 3 days, develop a high fever, have blood in your stools, or have vomiting that prevents you from keeping down liquids, contact your healthcare provider.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider: