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Quick Dose: What Is E. coli?

It’s in your digestive tract. It’s under your fingernails. Escherichia coli — E. coli — is everywhere. Most forms of this bacteria are harmless and important for digestive health. Six forms can cause infection.

One form typically makes the news: Enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC).

EHEC is often associated with foodborne illness outbreaks and can be deadly for those with compromised immune systems. It’s transmitted through the consumption of contaminated plant and animal food products, or through direct contact with infected animals and people.

Hallmark symptoms of an EHEC infection include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Severe and often bloody diarrhea

Symptoms can progress to kidney failure, seizures, stroke and coma.

Antibiotics can worsen EHEC symptoms, as they release additional toxins into your body. Physicians approach treatment on a case-by-case basis, but fluids can help curb the progression of the infection.

Protect yourself from EHEC by taking the following precautions:

  • Avoid foods with known EHEC contamination.
  • Thoroughly wash your produce.
  • Know the source of your food.
  • Avoid raw or unpasteurized dairy products.
  • Handle meat safely, and thoroughly cook your meat products to kill all bacteria.

Seek immediate medical care if you or a loved one has symptoms of an EHEC infection.

- Michael P. Angarone, DO, Northwestern Medical Group, Infectious Disease