By Drs. Sally Robinson and Keith Bly

Escherichia coli, more commonly referred to as E. coli, is a common bacteria, and one of the many types of bacteria that lives and works within a person’s digestive system. Most species of E. coli do not pose any threat to humans; however, some can cause serious disease, such as those heard about recently in the news. These dangerous strains of E. coli are a major cause of diarrhea, which can range from mild to severe.

E. coli, since it is common in stool, can end up in food or water that has been contaminated with it. Undercooked ground beef, unpasteurized milk, raw fruits and vegetables, and swimming pool water are common sources of E. coli. Children can also get urinary tract infections from E. coli, if the bacteria from their stool get into their urinary tract. It is also a common cause of sepsis (a blood infection) and meningitis (an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord) in newborns.

Symptoms of E. coli infection usually start about seven days after exposure to the germ and may include:

· Diarrhea, which can be short-term or chronic and may be accompanied by abdominal pain, blood in the stool or a high fever.

· Children may develop hemolytic anemia, which is a low red blood cell count and can cause kidney failure.

· Burning when urinating and an increase in urination if the infection is in the urinary tract.

· Infected newborns may develop pauses in breathing, poor feeding, temperature that is either too high or too low, irritability, or excessive sleepiness.

There is no special way to treat an E. coli infection other than drinking a lot of water and watching for complications. Medicine to stop diarrhea should not be taken unless prescribed by your doctor because some medications may interfere with germs necessary for digestion.

Here are tips you can use to prevent the spread of E. coli:

· Wash hands carefully with soap before cooking.

· Cook ground beef thoroughly to at least 155 F.

· Defrost meat in the refrigerator or microwave instead of letting it sit on the counter to defrost.

· Keep raw meat and poultry separate from other foods.

· Putt cooked hamburgers on a clean plate.

· Don’t drink milk or apple juice that has not been pasteurized.

· Keep food refrigerated or frozen.

· Refrigerate leftovers immediately or throw them away.

· Wash hands if you have diarrhea, using hot water and soap for at least 30 seconds.

· Don’t let your child swim in pools or at water parks if he or she has diarrhea.

· Teach your child not to swallow swimming pool water.

Though the infection usually clears on its own, if your child becomes dehydrated, he or she may require hospitalization. If your child has blood in his or her stool, call your pediatrician.
Dr. Sally Robinson is a pediatrician in the division of children’s special services at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She teaches medical students about caring for children with chronic medical conditions. Dr. Keith Bly is a hospitalist and assistant professor of pediatrics at UTMB.

The Your Health column is written by health and medical experts at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The column focuses on topical health issues that we believe are of interest to your readers. It is e-mailed every Tuesday. If you have any questions about the column, or would like to suggest topics, please contact John Koloen, media relations specialist, at (409) 772-8790 or email jskoloen@utmb.edu.