Escherichia coli O157:H7

Adapted From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

E. Coli
E. Coli under an electron microscope. pasieka/Getty Images

Escherichia coli O157:H7 is a cause of foodborne illness. Most cases of E coli O157:H7 have been associated with eating undercooked, contaminated ground beef. As many as 73,000 cases of infection - leading to 61 deaths - occur in the U.S. each year.

Infection often leads to bloody diarrhea, and occasionally to a form of kidney failure. Besides meat, E coli O157:H7 infection can also occur from close person-to-person contact, drinking raw milk, and after swimming in or drinking sewage-contaminated water.

There have also been cases of E coli O157:H7 infection caused by consumption of sprouts, spinach, lettuce, and salami.

Avoiding E coli O157:H7 Infection

Most E coli O157:H7 infection can be avoided by thoroughly cooking ground beef, avoiding unpasteurized milk, and washing hands carefully. Other precautions include:

  • Keep raw meat separate from other ingredients in the kitchen - especially ready-to-eat foods.
  • Clean meat preparation areas well after use. Wash hands, counters, and utensils with hot soapy water after they touch raw meat.
  • Never place cooked hamburgers or ground beef on the unwashed plate that held raw patties.
  • Wash meat thermometers in between tests of patties that require further cooking.
  • Drink only pasteurized milk, juice, or cider. Commercial juice with an extended shelf-life that is sold at room temperature (e.g. juice in cardboard boxes, vacuum sealed juice in glass containers) has been pasteurized, although this is generally not indicated on the label.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly, especially those that will not be cooked.
  • Children under 5 years of age, immunocompromised persons, and the elderly should avoid eating alfalfa sprouts until their safety can be assured.
  • Drink municipal water that has been treated with chlorine or other effective disinfectants.
  • Avoid swallowing lake or pool water while swimming.
  • Make sure that persons with diarrhea, especially children, wash their hands carefully with soap after bowel movements to reduce the risk of spreading infection, and that persons wash hands after changing soiled diapers.
  • Anyone with a diarrheal illness should avoid swimming in public pools or lakes, sharing baths with others, and preparing food for others.

Recognizing E coli O157:H7 Infection

E coli O157:H7 infection often causes severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps; sometimes the infection causes nonbloody diarrhea or no symptoms. Usually little or no fever is present, and the illness resolves in 5 to 10 days.

In some persons, particularly children under 5 years of age and the elderly, the infection can also cause hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) - also known as Hamburger Disease - in which the red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail. About 2%-7% of infections lead to this complication. In the United States, hemolytic uremic syndrome is the principal cause of acute kidney failure in children, and most cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome are caused by E coli O157:H7.

Treating E coli O157:H7 Infection

Unfortunately, the treatment for E coli O157:H7 infection is mostly supportive. Victims of E coli O157:H7 infection that develop diarrhea may become dehydrated.

Antibiotics have not been shown to improve the course of E coli O157:H7 infection. Antibiotics may also increase the likelihood of kidney disease.

Additional E coli O157:H7 Resources

For more information about E coli O157:H7 and foodborne illness, take a look at the following:

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