What is E.coli?
E.coli or Escherichia coli is a rod-shaped bacteria that generally lives in the intestines of humans and most other mammals. Usually, it is harmless and quite beneficial for the health of the organism. But some variations of these bacteria are quite harmful and can cause severe food poisoning.
Besides food poisoning, E.coli is also known to cause pneumonia as well as urinary tract infections, the latter of which can lead to serious health complications. One of the primary reasons why people fall sick is because certain strains of E.coli bacteria produce a potent toxin called Shiga. The Shiga toxin can damage the lining of the intestine, which can eventually lead to a host of other illnesses. Consequently, the particular strains of E.coli that produce this toxin are called Shiga Toxin-producing E. coli (abbreviated as STEC).
A strain of Shiga producing E.coli, called Escherichia coli O157: H7 is particularly nasty. It is responsible for causing bloody diarrhoea and severe food poisoning. This strain is also known to cause kidney failure in children.
Symptoms of E. coli typically set in within 2-3 days of infection. Symptoms generally include:
- Severe abdominal cramps
- Urinary tract infection
- Nausea and vomiting
- Perforation of the gastrointestinal tract (severe cases)
- High fever
- Bloody diarrhoea (a characteristic feature of Shiga-toxin producing strains of E. coli)
- Kidney failure (sporadic)
How is E.coli Transmitted?
Like most other bacteria, one of the primary modes of transmission is through contaminated food and water. More specifically, it spreads through:
Infected ground meat:
Ground meat contains meat from all parts of an animal and not just one animal. Therefore, virulent strains of E.coli make its way into ground meat through an infected animal’s intestine.
Occasionally, E.coli can enter milk through an infected cow’s udders. The bacteria eventually infect humans when this milk is consumed without pasteurization. Making milk products such as yoghurt and cheese from this raw milk can also increase the risk of infection. Furthermore, milking equipment can also harbour E.coli and make it possible for transmission.
Fruits and vegetables:
Fruits and vegetables can become tainted with E.coli if washed with polluted water. The risk of infection is significantly higher when animals and their manure mixes with the water source.
Other modes of transmission:
E.coli can also spread when a kitchen knife is used to cut infected meat and is then used to cut fruits or vegetables for salads. Interacting with infected animals at zoos or animal exhibitions can also spread E. coli.
How is E. coli Infected Treated?
Generally, an infected individual loses substantial amounts of water through diarrhoea or vomiting. Hence, fruit juices, oral rehydration solutions and water should be provided to replenish lost electrolytes and water. Moreover, since E. coli is a bacteria, antibiotics are usually prescribed when doctors diagnose an infection.