Preventing E. Coli

Warmer weather inspires people to bring out the grills and cook out more. It’s during this cookout season that more cases of E. coli are usually reported.

“We do tend to see more cases of E. coli in the summer from hot foods not being kept hot or undercooked and cold foods not being kept cold. There are also cases from swimming and swallowing contaminated water. Most cases, however, are not an outbreak,” said Kristopher Weiss, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Health.

What is E. coli?
E. coli is a type of bacteria and short for the medical term Escherichia coli. E. coli normally lives inside the intestines of healthy humans and animals and helps the body break down and digest food. Most strains of E. coli are harmless but some can cause illnesses and even death. Experts estimate that 70,000 people in the United States become infected with E. coli every year, making it a leading cause of food-borne illness. The most common strain that causes illness in the United States is E. coli 0157 and was first identified during an outbreak of severe bloody diarrhea in 1982, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The outbreak was traced back to contaminated hamburgers.

The last significant E. coli outbreak in Ohio was contaminated spinach in 2006, and Ohio had 26 of the 199 confirmed cases, Weiss said. Between 2002 and 2006, Ohio averaged 140 cases of E. coli, Weiss said. Last year there were 92 cases.

“Generally people don’t die after getting E. coli but about 5 percent can get Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, which can cause kidney failure and is potentially life threatening especially for the very old and very young,” Weiss said.

How do you get E. coli?
Infections start when you swallow tiny amounts of human or animal feces. This can happen when you consume contaminated food, unpasteurized milk or water that has not been disinfected or come into contact with the feces of infected people. Proper hand washing is critical because eating food prepared by people who did not wash their hands well after using the toilet can lead to E. coli. You also need to wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer after touching animals at a petting zoo or after changing a diaper.

The incubation period is usually three to four days after exposure but could be as short as one day or as long as 10 days, according to the CDC. Symptoms typically start slowly with mild belly pain, vomiting or nonbloody diarrhea that worsens over several days. Usually the illness disappears after five to 10 days.

How is the illness treated?
Staying hydrated is key to recovering from an E. coli infection, Weiss said. He said there is no evidence that antibiotics work and that taking them or any type of antidiarrhea medication such as Imodium may increase the risk of hemolytic uremic syndrome. Lab testing of stool specimens is the only effective way to confirm an E. coli case.

How can you prevent E. coli?
Washing your hands in warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds is critical in preventing E. coli, Weiss said. He said ground beef should be cooked to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit and that the color of the meat is not a good indicator of whether it has been cooked enough.

“Use a thermometer to make sure that (the meat) is cooked to the proper temperature,” he said. “You also don’t want to be storing beef above vegetables because the meat juice could drip onto vegetables and if you don’t cook the vegetables, they will be contaminated.”

In the kitchen or other food preparation areas, prevent cross contamination of foods by washing your hands, counter, cutting boards and utensils after they come into contact with raw meat. Don’t forget to wash the plate that held raw meat or get a new plate for the meat you have just cooked. Meat thermometers should be washed after each use.

The CDC also recommends that you only drink pasteurized milk and apple juice, wash fresh fruits and vegetables before eating them and try to avoid swallowing any water while swimming.

Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Franklin County.