You probably know E. coli is some sort of feces-related germ that can lead to illness and sometimes death. But do you understand exactly what it is or how it spreads?
It’s hard to avoid something you don’t understand, so we’ve outlined everything you need to know about E. coli and how to protect yourself from this costly bug.
Last week, the latest E. coli outbreak – whose source remains unidentified – cost someone their life and has hospitalized another three people. Last year, a European outbreak cost the region an estimated $304 million, making it the most expensive outbreak to date. Ironically, avoiding E. coli costs almost nothing.
What is E. coli?
E. coli is the scientific nickname for a group of bacteria called Escherichia coli. The group includes multiple strains, each identified by a string of numbers or letters. For example, the current U.S. strain is called E. coli O145, and last year’s European strain was E. coli O104.
Most strains are harmless, but some can make you very sick. A common strain called E. coli O157:H7 can cause bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and vomiting. Other strains can cause urinary tract infections and respiratory illnesses like pneumonia.
How E. coli spreads
E. coli lives in the intestines of certain animals – including humans. It’s a normal, natural part of the digestive tract and actually guards against bad bacteria that shouldn’t be there.
E. coli causes problems when it spreads to other parts of the body, starting at the mouth, by hitching a ride on microscopic pieces of feces. (Gross, right?)
How to prevent E. coli
- Don’t eat undercooked meat. E. coli can be transferred to animal meat during processing, and the bacteria can survive temperatures of up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Don’t drink unpasteurized milk. E. coli can be transferred to animal udders and then milk.
- Beware of other high-risk foods, which include other unpasteurized dairy products (like soft cheeses made from raw milk) and unpasteurized juices (like unpasteurized apple cider).
- Wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom or changing diapers.
- Wash your hands thoroughly before touching baby bottles, pacifiers, and teethers, and keep such items clean.
- Wash your hands thoroughly after touching animals.
- Wash produce thoroughly. E. coli can be transferred to produce via manure.
- Wash your hands thoroughly before preparing food, eating, or feeding others.
- Keep cutting boards, kitchen counters, and other food-preparation surfaces and tools clean.
- Carry hand sanitizer to use when you may not have access to soap and water.
- If you grow your own produce or herbs, don’t water them with water that isn’t safe to drink.
- Don’t swallow water when swimming in pools, lakes, rivers, ponds, canals, or streams. Water supplies can be contaminated with E. coli from various sources.
- Don’t use ice or drink tap water when traveling in foreign countries.
As you can see, avoiding this illness requires some vigilance, but very little cash. Be careful what you eat and spend a little more on soap and and sanitizer, and you stay healthy, wealthy, and wise.
Karla Bowsher runs our deals page and covers consumer, retail, and health issues. If you have a comment, suggestion, or question, leave a comment or contact her at [sm mailto=”email@example.com” txt=”firstname.lastname@example.org”].