700 Children's® – A Blog by Pediatric Experts

E. Coli: What You Need to Know

Sep 20, 2022
sick young  girl

With recent outbreaks of E. coli in the Midwest, knowing the signs of illness is important. Most E. coli infections in children are mild, with little to no medication needed; rest and high fluid intake may be prescribed. While severe illness from E. coli is rare, some complications can be life-threatening.

What is E. coli?

Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a large group of bacteria that can be found in the intestines of people and animals as well in the environment, food and untreated water. Most E.coli are harmless and are part of healthy intestines. However, there are some strains of E. coli that can cause illness including diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, and blood stream infections. For example, the current strain of E.coli causing the outbreak is called E.coli O 157, which can cause severe infection by producing a strong toxin that damages the lining of the intestinal wall and causes bloody diarrhea.

How is E. Coli Spread?

E. coli can be spread in many ways; the most common cause of infection happens when we consume contaminated food or water. Avoiding the consumption of raw or undercooked meat can lessen the chances of an E. coli infection. These bacteria can also spread in areas where poor hygiene is common. Make sure to wash your and your child’s hands often, especially if you work in an area where stool can accidentally be spread from person to person (i.e., daycare centers, nursing homes, hospitals, etc.). The bacteria can be also spread from contact with animals or infected people (person-person in families).

What Are the Symptoms of E. Coli?

Your child may be infected with E. coli if they are experiencing:

  • Severe stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea (often bloody diarrhea)
  • Vomiting
  • Fever

These symptoms usually appear 3-4 days after eating or drinking something that contains the bacteria, but illness can start anywhere from 1 to 10 days after exposure.

Contact your healthcare provider if your child has diarrhea or vomiting that lasts for more than 3 days, bloody stools, a fever higher than 102°F, or signs of dehydration (including little or no urination, excessive thirst, a very dry mouth, dizziness or lightheadedness, or very dark urine).

How Can E. Coli be Prevented?

  • Wash your hands: Wash your hands on a regular basis, especially after using the restroom, before handling or eating food, after changing a diaper, or after close contact with animals. Use warm water and soap and wash for at least twenty seconds.
  • Safely prepare and cook food: Thoroughly cooking meat can kill E. coli. Make sure to cook meat to their suggested temperatures and thaw the meat in a sealed contained that is stored in the refrigerator—not in open areas like a kitchen counter.
  • Keep your kitchen clean: Use disinfectant to wipe down routinely touched surfaces. Make sure to keep raw meat separate from cooked food or raw vegetables and fruits. Prevent cross-contamination by washing counters, cutting boards, and utensils with soap and water after they touch raw meat.
  • Do not drink unpasteurized beverages: Unpasteurized beverages are served raw, without first being exposed to high temperatures to kill harmful microbes. Consume only pasteurized drinks like milk, juices, and ciders.
  • Only drink safe water: Only drink water that has be filtered or disinfected. Avoid swallowing untreated pool, lake, ocean, or bath water.

If your child is having diarrhea and you suspect that something they ate or drank may have been contaminated, talk to your healthcare provider right away.

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Katia Camille Halabi
Katia Camille Halabi, MD

Katia Camille Halabi, MD is apart of the Infectious Diseases Physician Team. 

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.