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Ask the Expert: What is E. coli and how do you know if you have an infection?

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Ask the Expert - E. coli - Dr. Kristina Lozano

You suddenly start vomiting, develop diarrhea, and have abdominal cramps; could it be an E. coli infection?

A recent multistate E. coli outbreak linked to chopped romaine lettuce has caused many people in the U.S. to become hospitalized. So, if you’ve got a rumbly tummy, how do you know if it’s an E. coli infection, and what should you do? Dr. Kristina Lozano, Family Medicine at Alta View Hospital weighs in.

What is e Coli and how is it transmitted?

Escherichia coli are bacteria found in the environment, foods and intestines of people and animals, says the Centers for Disease Control. Most E. coli are harmless, but a few strains of the bacteria can wreak havoc. The bacteria is transmitted by eating or drinking contaminated food.

What are the symptoms of an E. coli infection?

Most E. coli are harmless and are actually an important part of a healthy human intestinal tract. However, some E. coli can cause illness. Watch out for diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, bloodstream infections, and other illnesses, the Centers for Disease Control says.

It’s important to note that symptoms don’t generally come on right away; in fact, most people begin to feel sick 3 to 4 days after eating or drinking contaminated food.

When should I see a doctor?

After symptoms start, someone with the bacteria usually begins to feel better within 5 to 7 days. However, if diarrhea persists longer than 3 days and is combined with bloody stools, a high fever, or significant vomiting, it’s time to see the doctor.

Diagnosis

An official diagnosis of E. coli infection requires your doctor to take a stool sample and send it to the lab to test for the presence of the bacteria.

Treatment

Unfortunately, there is no cure for E. coli caused illness, and generally doctors will not prescribe medication except getting lots of rest and staying hydrated. However, if severe enough and a patient is admitted into the hospital, an IV is usually placed to keep the patient from getting dehydrated.

If you experience diarrhea, it may be tempting to take over the counter anti-diarrhea medication, but Dr. Lozano does not recommend this route as it can prevent the body from releasing toxins. She recommends drinking plenty of clear liquids such as water or broth, clear soup, and gelatin. Avoid apple and pear juices, along with caffeine and alcohol. And once you’re up to eating solid food again, pace yourself. Avoid dairy, greasy and/or fatty foods, and food with high fiber. Go for low fiber foods including rice, eggs, soda crackers and toast.

Am I contagious?

Generally, E. coli doesn’t spread person to person through everyday interactions such as coughing, kissing, etc. So, if you suspect you have symptoms from the bacteria, you don’t need to worry about passing it on to others. However, it’s important to note that humans spread the bacteria through fecal contamination. So, if you fail to wash your hands after using the bathroom or changing a baby diaper, and go on to prepare someone’s food, you could pass the bacteria to someone else. The best way to avoid spreading E. coli is to wash your hands.

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