E. coli

E. coli (Escherichia coli) is a type of bacteria that normally lives in the digestive tract of humans and animals. Some kinds (strains) of E. coli can cause diarrhea and other digestive system (gastrointestinal) problems.

A few strains of E. coli bacteria (primarily a strain called O157:H7) can produce poisons (toxins) that can harm the intestines, blood, and kidneys. Bloody diarrhea commonly occurs when a person is infected with this strain of bacteria. A small number of infected people (especially small children and older adults) may develop serious, sometimes fatal, complications, usually from dehydration or severe blood and kidney problems.

Treatment of E. coli infection generally consists of managing complications, such as dehydration caused by diarrhea. Antidiarrheal medications are not used because they may slow the elimination of the toxin from the body and increase the risk of complications. Antibiotics also may be harmful in cases of E. coli infection.

The risk of illness from E. coli can be reduced by proper food preparation and storage and by careful hand-washing and other good personal hygiene habits.

Last Updated: June 16, 2008

Author: Maria G. Essig, MS, ELS

Medical Review: Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & W. David Colby IV, MSc, MD, FRCPC - Infectious Disease

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