Food recalls because of E. coli contamination appear in the news on a regular basis across the U.S. These could include beef, pork, chicken, frozen, canned or other prepackaged foods, vegetables and fruits.
While it isn't that common, outbreaks of E. coli do happen. An outbreak is when two or more people get the same illness from the same contaminated food or drink, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Our experts share symptoms and other information to be aware of during an E. coli-related recall or if you or a family member has been infected.
What is Escherichia coli (E. coli)?
E. coli is a common bacterium with several different strains. People and animals carry E. coli. It can be spread from person-to-person and can contaminate food. It usually spreads when people accidentally consume invisible amounts of human or animal feces.
The feces can be found on foods. It can also be left behind on surfaces after someone didn't thoroughly wash their hands. E. coli exposure can also happen through animal contact, where animals can carry the bacteria on their skin, fur or feathers.
What are the common symptoms of E. coli infection?
Symptoms of E. coli typically start appearing 3 to 4 days after eating or drinking something with the bacteria. However, symptoms can appear 1 to 10 days after you're exposed. Common symptoms of E. coli include:
- abdominal cramps
- diarrhea (often containing blood)
- fever that's typically under 101° F
- nausea and vomiting
Contact your health care provider if you have these E. coli symptoms:
- diarrhea that lasts more than three days
- diarrhea with a fever over 102°F
- bloody diarrhea
- vomiting that doesn't allow you to keep down liquids
Can an E. coli infection be life-threatening?
About 5-10% of people infected with E. coli develop a life-threatening condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). These symptoms can show up about one week after initial symptoms. Children under age 5 and adults over age 65, as well as those with compromised immune systems, are most at risk for HUS.
Most people with HUS recover within a few weeks, but some can suffer permanent damage or die. Serious HUS symptoms include:
- decreased urination
- extreme fatigue
- kidney failure
- increased heart rate
- flushed color in the face
- lightheadedness and confusion
What should you do if you have symptoms of E. coli?
If you have the mild or common E. coli symptoms listed above, the bacteria will likely work its way through your body. However, if you have any serious symptoms, contact your health care provider.
How can you avoid getting E. coli?
You can reduce your risk of E. coli infection by following best practices for food handling and cooking. It's also important to have good personal hygiene. Recommendations include:
- Wash your hands well after using the bathroom, changing diapers, preparing food, or eating.
- Wash your hands after touching animals or their environment (such as at farms, petting zoos, or at home with your own pets).
- Cook meat thoroughly to 160° F and use a food thermometer.
- Avoid raw milk, unpasteurized juices and dairy products.
- Thoroughly clean all cooking utensils and food preparation surfaces.
These habits can also help protect you against other bacteria, such as listeria. Listeria can contaminate food and can live in a long time in the environment and food. It's often found in dairy products, deli items, fruits and vegetables.
Another way to protect yourself from E. coli is to avoid swallowing water when swimming in lakes, ponds, or swimming pools. Also, say no to raw cookie dough. Uncooked dough can not only put you at risk of E. coli from raw flour, but also salmonella from raw eggs, which can cause food poisoning.
Medically reviewed by Dean Blumberg, M.D., chief of pediatric infectious diseases.