Escherichia coli (most commonly abbreviated to E. coli) are bacteria found in the environment, foods and intestines of people and animals. Although most strains of E. coli are harmless, others can get you sick.
E. coli is most likely to be found in the summer, from June to September, so it’s more important to know about the infection now than ever. In fact, you might’ve heard about E. coli in the news last month, when an outbreak pervaded the United States. There were 197 reported cases across 35 states, due to a bacteria found in romaine lettuce.
You catch the infection by swallowing minuscule amounts of human or animal feces—a gross, but not uncommon occurrence! The time between ingesting the bacteria and feeling sick is called the “incubation period.” The time frame is usually three to four days after the exposure, but may be as short as one day or as long as 10 days.
If you believe you might have been exposed to the E. coli bacteria, or want to learn more about the common infection, look through the symptoms below.
One of the earliest signs of E. coli is severe stomach cramps.
Irregular bowel movements
Infected people might suddenly develop severe watery diarrhea. This condition may change to bloody stools as the infection persists.
Loss of appetite and feelings of nausea are common symptoms of the bacteria. In extreme cases, some people might even experience uncontrollable vomiting.
Most people with E. coli will not develop a fever. But if temperatures do rise, the fever is usually not very high—averaging less than 101 degrees.
When the body quickly loses fluids, those who become infected may also experience dehydration. As a result, it’s so important to continue consuming liquids, even when it feels like everything you put into your body is moving straight through you.
Around 5 to 10 percent of those who are diagnosed with E. coli develop a potentially life-threatening condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). One common symptom of HUS is the decreased frequency of urination. Most people who develop HUS recover within a few weeks, but sometimes the kidneys stop working, or people might suffer permanent damage or die.
Loss of skin pigment
A change in pigment is another symptom of the E. coli complication, HUS. This might include losing pink color in cheeks and inside the lower eyelids.
Luckily, there are preventative measures to be taken to avoid contact with E. coli. Start by washing your hands regularly, cooking meats thoroughly, avoiding unpasteurized dairy products, drinking filtered water only, and preventing cross-contamination.