You’re experiencing vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps – the works. And although you’ve avoided romaine lettuce since the CDC’s announcement that some lettuce from Yuma, Arizona, may be contaminated, you can’t help but wonder: “Could I have an E. coli infection? And if so, what should I do?”
A recent multistate E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce has caused numerous hospitalizations across 19 states, and although the source of the contaminated lettuce still remains a mystery, it’s important to know the symptoms and when to see a doctor. Here are answers to six important questions about the signs, symptoms, and treatment of an E. coli infection to help you protect yourself.
- What is E. coli and how is it transmitted?
- What are the symptoms of an E. coli infection?
- When should I see a doctor?
- How is an E. coli infection diagnosed?
- What are the treatment options for an E. coli infection?
- Am I contagious? And how do I stop E. coli from spreading?
Escherichia coli are bacteria found in the environment, foods, and intestines of people and animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Most E. coli are harmless, but a few strains can wreak havoc. “People can catch the infection by eating or drinking contaminated food or water,” says Kristina Lozano, MD, who practices family medicine at Intermountain Alta View Hospital. “And it’s such a small amount, you wouldn’t even see it on the food.”
“Most E. coli are harmless and are actually an important part of a healthy human intestinal tract,” Dr. Lozano says. “However, some E. coli can cause illness.” Watch out for diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, bloodstream infections, and other illnesses.
It’s important to note that symptoms don’t generally come on right away; in fact, most people begin to feel sick three to four days after eating or drinking contaminated food.
After symptoms start, someone with the bacteria usually begins to feel better within five to seven days. However, if diarrhea persists longer than three days and is combined with bloody stools, a high fever, or significant vomiting, it’s time to see the doctor.
An official diagnosis of an 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.
“Unfortunately, there’s no cure for E. coli-caused illness, and generally doctors won’t prescribe medication except getting lots of rest and staying hydrated,” Dr. Lozano says. However, if the symptoms are 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 doesn’t recommend this route, since it can prevent the body from releasing toxins. She recommends plenty of clear liquids such as water or broth, clear soup, and gelatin. Avoid apple and pear juices, caffeine, and alcohol. And once you’re up to eating solid food again, pace yourself. Avoid dairy, greasy and fatty foods, and food that’s high in fiber. Go for low-fiber foods including rice, eggs, soda crackers, and toast.
Generally, E. coli doesn’t spread person to person through everyday interactions such as coughing, sneezing, kissing, etc. So if you suspect you have symptoms from the bacteria, you don’t need to worry about passing it on to others. But Dr. Lozano says humans spread the bacteria through fecal contamination. “If you fail to wash your hands after using the bathroom or changing a baby’s diaper, then go on to prepare someone’s food, you could pass the bacteria to someone else,” she says. “The best way to avoid spreading E. coli is to wash your hands.”
She adds: “When it comes to an E. Coli infection, it’s better to be safe than sorry. So if you experience bloody stools, diarrhea, high fever, and vomiting where you can’t keep liquids down, and it lasts longer than three days, see your doctor to get it checked out.”