Facts About E. coli O157:H7

What is E. coli O157:H7 infection?

E. coli are coliform bacteria that live in the intestines of humans and animals. Most strains of E. coli are harmless, but some are known to make toxins that can cause diarrhea and illness. One E. coli strain called O157:H7 can cause severe diarrhea and kidney damage.

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Who gets E. coli O157:H7 infection?

Anyone of any age can become infected with E. coli O157:H7. Most infections are mild, but the very young and very old are more likely to have serious complications.

How is E. coli O157:H7 infection spread?

E. coli O157:H7 can live in the intestines of some healthy cattle, and so meat can become contaminated during slaughter. You can get E. coli O157:H7 infection by eating undercooked meat, especially ground beef. You can also get it by eating contaminated fruits or vegetables, as well as by drinking unpasteurized (raw) fruit juices or milk, or sewage-contaminated water. Infection can be spread from person to person.

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What are the symptoms of E. coli O157:H7 infection?

People infected with E. coli O157:H7 can have a range of symptoms. Some infected people have only mild diarrhea or no symptoms at all. Most people are diagnosed because they develop severe diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Blood is often seen in the stool. Usually little or no fever is present.

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How soon after the exposure do symptoms appear?

The symptoms usually appear about three to four days after exposure, but can start after one day — or as long as 10 days after exposure.

What is the treatment for E. coli O157:H7 infection?

Most people recover without antibiotics or other specific treatment in five to 10 days. There is no evidence that antibiotics help, and treatment with some antibiotics might actually harm the kidneys. Do not take antidiarrheal medications, such as Imodium® A-D.

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What complications can result from infection?

For some people, especially children under age 5, infection can cause a complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). HUS destroys red blood cells and can cause kidney failure and death. Treatment with transfusions of blood or blood clotting factors, as well as kidney dialysis, may be needed. With treatment, most people who have HUS recover completely.

Parents and caregivers should watch for symptoms of HUS: crankiness, extreme tiredness, skin color that is paler than normal, and less urine produced. Call your child's doctor if he or she has had diarrhea for longer than four or five days. Also call the doctor if the diarrhea stops but the child does not seem to have fully recovered.

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How can infection with E. coli O157:H7 be prevented?

The risk of spreading or becoming infected with E. coli O157:H7 can be greatly reduced by following these general guidelines for safe food handling and personal care:

Get more information about year-round and holiday food safety.

For More Information

Contact the Vermont Department of Health

For further information about E. coli O157:H7 infection, call the Vermont Department of Health, Epidemiology Field Unit at 800-640-4374 or 863-7240.

Contact the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Consumers with food safety questions can "Ask Karen," the USDA virtual representative available 24 hours a day at AskKaren.gov.

The toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) is available in English and Spanish and can be reached from l0 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Eastern Time) Monday through Friday. Recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day.

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Updated 10/13/08