This is the last part in a three part series. You can visit Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

By: Candess Zona-Mendola

Whenever a child is sick, a parent wants to know what caused it. When their doctor tells them a long, scary diagnosis, like Escherichia coli (E. coli) or hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), the first question is usually, what is that? The second set of questions are usually: How will this affect my child? Will my child be ok? What do I need to do?

In an effort to help parents understand this concerning bacterium a little better and its potential complications, we at UnsafeFoods have gathered some explanations and resources for you below.

What is E. coli?

The simplest explanation for E. coli is that it is a bacterium that lives in the digestive tract of humans and animals. Most species of E. coli are not harmful, but others, like E. coli O157:H7, E. coli O26, or E. coli O121, can produce a dangerous toxin that makes people sick. This toxin, called a Shiga toxin, essentially kills blood cells (hemolytic anemia) and intestinal lining cells (hemorrhagic colitis). This is the cause for the concerning symptom of E. coli infections – bloody diarrhea.

Generally, E. coli infections have other symptoms apart from watery, and sometimes bloody, diarrhea. Other symptoms could include: nausea, abdominal pain or cramping, vomiting, and sometimes, a low grade fever. More severe cases may develop a reduction in urination, pale skin, easy bruising, and extreme fatigue.

Another idea to take into account is that E. coli can live on many surfaces, from soils to the floor in your home, from your bathroom to a doorknob. Scientists are still conducting studies about how long E. coli can survive on surfaces. Their general estimates show anywhere from 25 days in leafy greens to over 100 days in water sources.

Unlike its fellow foodborne bacteria, Listeria for instance, it only takes a few E. coli cells to get someone sick, sometimes as few as 10 cells. This is another reason why E. coli is so dangerous.

How Did My Child Get It?

The most logical answer is that your child either ate contaminated food or drank contaminated water or drinks. In some cases, there could be a secondary method of spread. For example, if someone with an E. coli infection did not wash their hands, touched an item, your child then touched that item too prior to putting their hands in their mouth. Some children also became infected with E. coli after attending a petting zoo or touching farm animals. This is why places with a large group of children – like schools, daycares, fairs, or petting zoos – are potential places that spread E. coli.

These bacteria live in the digestive tract, which means it is often contained in animal feces. The bacteria are then spread through the “fecal-to-oral” route.

What Foods Are a Risk for E. coli Contamination?

When a parent learns of an E. coli diagnosis, it is a great idea to write down everything you can remember your child eating from one to 9 days prior to their illness. E. coli in the past has been linked to several foods, including: undercooked hamburger meat, sprouts, unpasteurized juices and milk, raw milk products and cheeses, dark leafy greens, dry-cured salami, game meats (like deer), and most recently, in nut butter. E. coli has also been found in water sources.

How Will This Affect My Child?

In the majority of cases, healthy adults will recover from an E. coli infection within a week. For older adults, children, and those with weakened immune systems, recovery can take longer. A small percentage of cases, 0-15%, ill people with an E. coli infection could develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). E. coli has also been known to have effects on the lungs and nervous system.

What Is HUS?

When Shiga-toxins are released into the intestinal tract, there is a possibility they can infect the bloodstream. While in the blood stream, these toxins kill blood cells. As the body processes the blood throughout the system, blood cells are processed through the kidneys. The kidneys are the filtering structures of the body, removing toxins in the blood. As the kidneys process the blood, the dead blood cells are collected. This causes a back-up in the system, and this can destroy kidney tissue. From this point, the process leads to kidney failure and the development of HUS. This condition is life-threatening.

Once someone has developed HUS, emergent medical attention is vital for recovery. People who have developed HUS may require dialysis, blood transfusions, supportive care, and potentially, organ transplants. In a small percentage of cases, death can also occur.

What Can I Do for My Child?

If you suspect your child may be sick with an E. coli infection, it is recommended that they seek immediate medical attention. Urgent medical attention can reduce risk for development of HUS and other future or potentially life-threatening complications. It is important to specifically ask your doctor to conduct testing to determine if your child has an E. coli infection. This can be done through a stool or a blood test.

If your child has ingested a potentially contaminated product, you can monitor them for any signs or symptoms of E. coli. Some parents keep a journal of what their children have eaten in the time period before symptoms show. If your child is sick with an E. coli infection, most medical providers, and some state laws, will require your child to stay home until the infection has passed.

Lastly, the best course of action is prevention. By cooking foods to their optimum cooking temperature, like beef to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, washing hands, and keeping raw foods aware from ready-to-eat foods, you can reduce the risk for E. coli infection. For more information about how to prevent the spread of foodborne illness, you can visit our Tips and Tricks pages.

We at UnsafeFoods wish your family good health, and a rapid recovery to anyone suffering from an E. coli infection.