This disease is usually known by most people as E. coli. There are actually four subtypes of E. coli, but this is the one you hear about as it causes the most serious illnesses, outbreaks and recalls. There are many strains (or serotypes) of enterohemorrhagic E. coli; actually there are 6 leading ones in the U.S. that account for severe illness. Enterohemorrhagic is a big word that means bleeding a whole lot from inside your intestines. It’s not a good thing.
These bacteria are dangerous because they produce a toxin that can lead to very serious symptoms and even death in certain groups of people. Children are especially at risk, as are elderly people and those with weakened immune systems. It doesn’t take a high dose of E. coli to make you sick.
Generally you may see symptoms about 2 to 4 days after being exposed, but the onset time (the time from contracting the disease to beginning symptoms) is anywhere from 1 to 9 days.
E. coli is always accompanied by diarrhea. But with the EHEC substrain, the disease can continue into a life-threatening condition called HSUS, hemolytic ureic syndrome. Diarrhea becomes extremely bloody and the patient will have severe cramps, nausea and vomiting. The toxin may move on and attack other organs in the body. Without HUS, the illness may last a week. With HUS the illness may last months or may progress to organ failure or death.
Ground beef is always one of the largest contributors of E. coli, but many more cases have been found in produce (some examples are lettuce, spinach, tomatoes and other vegetables). These often come from water that is not properly treated, and is then used for watering crops. E. coli can also be found in raw, or unpasteurized milk, and also passed from one person to another by unwashed hands. Alfalfa sprouts are known to carry E. coli, as is unpasteurized juice.
The best prevention is to take care with certain types of food, especially around the high risk groups of people mentioned above. Always cook ground beef (hamburgers) well done, and clean up well after raw hamburger has touched something. Never serve raw milk to children or elderly people; wash produce well, and avoid serving sprouts to these groups also (FDA recommends this). As always, be sure to wash your hands before handling any food!