By: Alice Vo Edwards
Children’s bodies are a miracle in how quickly they seem to grow and–generally–how much more energetic they seem to be than their tired parents, like myself. Even as they grow and start to become more independent, as children, they are still much more susceptible to having a simple illness become something more complicated and potentially deadly.
It is always a parent’s worst fear–their child becoming ill and not knowing what type of illness it is, or what to do about it. I know, as a parent, I find it hard to even go to sleep at night, if one of my children has a high fever. I can’t go to bed unless I am relatively sure it won’t spike into dangerous territory during the middle of the night.
E. coli is a dangerous bacterium that can be very worrisome to parents of young children like myself. Thankfully, there is a lot known about stomach illnesses and diarrhea-causing illness, such as E. coli, and the warning signs that a parent should be on the lookout.
There are many different types of E. coli bacteria. While most are harmless, some types can cause severe illnesses and children have a particular vulnerability to these types. Children can get E. coli through contaminated food, water, animals who are infected, or from other people who are infected. The most well-known type of E. coli, because it causes large outbreaks and is very dangerous, is the Shiga toxin producing E. coli, called STEC.
How to tell if your child has E. Coli:
The CDC warns parents to lookout for the following symptoms and warning signs for E. coli infection:
- Severe stomach cramps
- Diarrhea (which is often bloody in STEC E. coli particularly)
- Low fever (if any)
With E. Coli, the infected person might start slowly with just having mild stomach pain or diarrhea that gets worse over a period of several days.
One of the worst potential complications of E. coli infection is getting hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) because about 5% of people diagnosed with STEC E. coli can develop this complication, and it causes the kidneys to stop working. If it is not treated, some patients can suffer permanent damage or die.
Symptoms to look out for, to know if your child’s illness is more than just a common stomach ache, flu or cold, is if they stop urinating, feel extra tired, and if they develop pallor—the lack of the healthy pink tone in their cheeks and inside the lower eyelids.
How to prevent your child from becoming infected with E. coli:
As Americans, we are becoming more food conscious and trying to help our kids eat healthy by giving them more organic, less processed foods. Many people have started trying to eat more raw foods as part of the raw food movement. Unfortunately, this well-intended health consciousness can also be dangerous to our children if we are not careful which foods we give our kids raw.
The CDC published a report on Emerging Infectious Diseases that stated that, “In the past decade, outbreaks of human illness associated with the consumption of raw vegetables and fruits (or unpasteurized products produced from them) have increased in the United States.”
According to the FDA, raw milk caused an outbreak of E. coli in school children in Canada. The FDA reports that other outbreaks have been caused by a variety of other foods including undercooked or raw hamburger meat, alfalfa sprouts, unpasteurized fruit juice, wild meat (think deer), and even cheese curds. There is even an outbreak of E. coli linked to nut butter.
As parents, it is important to balance our desire to be health conscious and supportive of healthy food movements with a dose of caution when it comes to uncooked foods. There is a reason why some cities have laws that restaurants cannot buy food from local farmer’s markets to serve patrons in their restaurants — these smaller establishments usually do not have as many health safety checks in place to insure that their food will not accidentally become contaminated with foodborne illnesses like E. coli.
What to do if you suspect your child might be infected with E. coli:
Most infections of E. coli, according to the CDC, get better within 5-7 days, but some infections are severe and can be life-threatening, especially in young children where additional complications can occur such as the hemolytic uremic syndrome mentioned earlier.
Hemolytic uremic syndrome is tricky because at that point in the illness, the diarrhea symptoms seem to be improving and a parent might optimistically think their child is getting better and just needs some extra rest to heal.
It is important to be on the lookout for those extra symptoms that it is more than just a common variety stomach bug. When in doubt, it is a good idea to take your child to his or her primary care doctor or urgent care to be tested. The CDC recommends parents contact their doctor if diarrhea lasts more than 3 days and is accompanied by secondary symptoms such as vomiting, not being able to urinate very much, high fever, or blood in the stool (feces).
If you see your doctor, be sure to explain the full duration of the symptoms and the particular ones that you are concerned about (such as any pallor, tiredness or listlessness, or infrequent peeing).
The only way to know for sure if your child is infected is for a doctor to order a laboratory test of their stool specimen. Many doctors, if they don’t test for E. coli, first, could mistakenly diagnose your child with a more generalized bacterial infection and prescribe antibiotics. New York’s health department warns that antibiotics should not be used to treat E. coli because in some cases it can increase the risk of complications.
This is why testing is so important prior to diagnosis and treatment of stomach illnesses like E. coli. You must ask your doctor specifically to test for E. coli 0157:H7, especially if your child has bloody diarrhea, because it is a specialized test that the doctor will need to order.
If my child is sick, can they go to school?
Requirements vary by state and local jurisdiction. You can check with your school’s nurse when in doubt. If your child is dealing with any stomach issues, regardless of whether or not you suspect that it’s E. coli, remind them to be extra vigilant in handwashing. Handwashing is one of the best practices to not only keep your child healthy, but to also help prevent the spread of foodborne illness.