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What Is It?

E. coli is a common type of bacteria that can get into food, like beef and vegetables. E. coli is short for the medical term Escherichia coli. The strange thing about these bacteria — and lots of other bacteria — is that they're not always harmful to you.

E. coli normally lives inside your intestines, where it helps your body break down and digest the food you eat. Unfortunately, certain types (called strains) of E. coli can get from the intestines into the blood. This is a rare illness, but it can cause a very serious infection.

Someone who has E. coli infection may have these symptoms:

  • bad stomach cramps and belly pain
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea, sometimes with blood in it

One very bad strain of E. coli was found in fresh spinach in 2006 and some fast-food hamburgers in 1993. Beef can contain E. coli because the bacteria often infect cattle. It can be in meat that comes from cattle and it's also in their poop, called manure. Cow poop in your food? How does that happen? Not on purpose, of course, but it can happen if the manure is used for fertilizer (a common practice to help crops grow) or if water contaminated with E. coli is used to irrigate the crops.

Foods to Watch

E. coli can be passed from person to person, but serious E. coli infection is more often linked to food containing the bacteria. The person eats the contaminated food and gets sick.

Here are some foods that can cause E. coli poisoning:

  • undercooked ground beef (used for hamburgers)
  • vegetables grown in cow manure or washed in contaminated water
  • fruit juice that isn't pasteurized (pasteurization is a process that uses heat to kill germs)

Heat can kill E. coli, so experts recommend that people cook beef (especially ground beef) until it is cooked through and no longer pink. Choosing pasteurized juice is another way to avoid possible infection.

Lastly, some experts recommend washing and scrubbing vegetables before eating them. But others say E. coli is hard to remove once it has contaminated produce, such as spinach, lettuce, or onions. The solution, they say, is to take more steps so that E. coli doesn't come in contact with crops.

What Will the Doctor Do?

If someone has symptoms of E. coli poisoning, the doctor will run some blood tests and take a sample of the person's stool (poop). The blood and stool can be checked to see if a harmful strain of E. coli is present. Even though diarrhea is one of the main symptoms, the person shouldn't take anti-diarrhea medicines because they can slow down recovery time.

Some people recover at home, while others need to be in the hospital. In some cases, E. coli poisoning can cause life-threatening kidney problems.

What Can Kids Do?

Adults are the main people in charge of preventing E. coli infection by serving well-cooked meat, cleaning countertops when preparing meats, and being aware of any recalls affecting contaminated vegetables or other products.

But kids can help, too. Here are three ways:

  1. When you're at a restaurant, order your burger well done. Eat it only if it's brown, not pink, on the inside.
  2. Don't swallow lake, ocean, or pool water. If the water contains any human waste, it can carry the E. coli bacteria.
  3. Always wash your hands after you use the bathroom and before you eat. There are plenty of bacteria in poop. Gross! You don't want to accidentally eat some of those bad bacteria!

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: January 2013

 
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Related Resources:
BrainPop
This is a great site for kids with informational movies about science, anatomy, weather, and more.
Stalking the Mysterious Microbe
On this American Society for Microbiology site, kids can learn more about bacteria, viruses, and other microbes.