E coli: What is the bacteria and what are the symptoms of infection?

Sabrina Barr
Escherichia coli bacterium: iStock

A “high level” of E coli has reportedly been found at the Egyptian resort where British couple John and Susan Cooper passed away in August.

E coli is commonly known for causing food poisoning and most strains of the bacteria often don't pose a great risk to a person’s health.

However, a recent outbreak of E coli in the US led to the deaths of five people and the contamination of approximately 200 individuals.

Not only can people who eat food that’s been contaminated with E coli become infected, but also those who have merely come into contact with it.

So what exactly is E coli, what are the symptoms of infection and how can it be treated?

What is E coli?

E coli, otherwise known as Escherichia coli, is a common type of bacteria that’s known for causing an irritable stomach and food poisoning.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that it can be found in various foods, in the environment and in the intestines of mammals, including humans.

While many strains of E coli will usually cause a person who has come into contact with it no harm, there have been cases of people becoming extremely ill and even dying following an E coli-related illness.

E coli forms part of the gut flora, as outlined by the NHS.

Some strains of E coli can be more detrimental to a person's health than others.

Therefore, the fact that the bacteria can survive outside of the body is very significant, as this means that it can sometimes pose a risk to a person's wellbeing if food has been contaminated with the bacteria.

What are the symptoms of infection?

Signs that you may have been infected by E coli bacteria can take approximately three or four days to arise, as stated by the Mayo Clinic, an academic medical centre based in Minnesota.

Symptoms include having diarrhoea, which may either seem mild or contain blood, experiencing painful stomach cramping, feeling nauseous or vomiting.

It can also cause a number of various illnesses including cystitis, urinary tract infections and pneumonia.

The NHS states that symptoms can usually last for around a week if a person who’s been infected doesn’t experience any complications.

Furthermore, children who have been infected by E coli bacteria may be more at risk of serious illness, as they may be less able to cope with the amount of bodily fluid lost through diarrhoea and vomiting.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a person should seek professional medical advice if their diarrhoea contains blood or is showing few signs of slowing down.

How can you become infected?

Eating foods that have been contaminated with E coli can lead to infection.

Some types of foods and drinks are more likely to be contaminated by the bacteria than others.

The Mayo Clinic explains that ground beef can contain remnants of E coli, due to the bacteria in the intestines of the cattle remaining on the meat.

Furthermore, unpasteurised milk and fresh produce from cattle farms such as spinach and lettuce can lead to infection if consumed when contaminated.

E coli bacteria can also sometimes be found in water, both in natural sources of water such as rivers and lakes and in public water supplies.

This may occur due to the spread of the bacteria through human and animal faeces.

However, the clinic explains that rural water supplies, such as private wells, are more likely to be infected.

How can infection be prevented?

As E coli bacteria can survive outside of the body, it’s important to practise decent hygiene in order to decrease your chances of being infected.

The CDC recommends making sure that you wash your hands properly after using the bathroom, before and after preparing food, after coming into contact with animals and when changing a baby’s nappy.

Furthermore, if you don’t have soap to clean your hands with, the organisation recommends opting for an alcohol-based hand sanitiser instead that has an alcohol content of at least 60 per cent.

Eating meat that hasn’t been cooked properly can also increase your risk of being infected with E coli bacteria.

The CDC advises cooking beef steaks at a temperature of at least 62.6 degrees Celsius and cooking ground beef and pork at a temperature of at least 70 degrees Celsius in order to destroy harmful germs.

The organisation also says that one should avoid swallowing water when swimming in public bodies of water such as swimming pools or lakes.

How is E coli-related infection treated?

Often infections that have been caused by E coli bacteria will subside over the course of a week or so.

However, if an E coli-based illness is particularly severe or lasts for longer than a week, then it’s advised that you should seek medical advice from a doctor or health professional.

The NHS explains that the type of treatment implemented on people who have been contaminated by E coli bacteria depends according to the illness.

If a person is experiencing cystitis, then this is likely to go away on its own either without the need for medication or with a small dose of antibiotics.

Furthermore, drinking lots of fluids is key, as someone who’s frequently vomiting or experiencing diarrhoea is likely to become dehydrated very quickly.