By: Alice Vo Edwards

It is a parents’ worst nightmare — you think your child may have been infected with E. coli — what do you do? First, check whether or not your child may have symptoms of E. coli bacterial infection. Many strains of E. coli are mild and not very dangerous. But there was an outbreak of a Shiga toxin-producing strain of E. coli O157:H7, this year in the United States and this strain can be deadly if not caught and treated timely. While thankfully no one died, there were 32 cases across 12 states, and 81% of those reported were in youths under 18 years of age.

If you suspect your child has E. coli, take them to the doctor immediately to make sure, and have them tested for which strain of E. coli your child has contracted.

How to check your child for signs of E. coli bacterial infection

For most people the symptoms of E. coli bacterial infection may just feel like food poisoning, but symptoms can include: severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. Sometimes diarrhea can be bloody. Fever, if any, is not high, and most people get better quickly – within 5-7 days. However, with children, there is a risk of developing complications from an E. coli infection. This is why medical attention is important.

The CDC recommends at-home treatment unless any of the following conditions apply:

  • if your child has diarrhea that lasts for more than 3 days
  • if your child has diarrhea with a high fever,
  • if your child has blood in the stool,
  • if your child has so much vomiting that you cannot keep liquids down, and
  • if your child passes very little urine.

At home treatment for a sick child with E. coli 

If your child has been found to be infected, here are some of the at home treatments and care your doctor may recommend to help your child get well as fast as possible and to ensure you prevent the spread of infection to others in your household:

  1. Sanitize the home
    • First, try to identify the source of the infection. Was it eating out at a restaurant or a contaminant in the home, such as the SoyNut Butter that caused the earlier 2017 outbreak? If it is something in the home, throw away the remainder of the product and thoroughly clean with soap and high heat such as the sanitization feature on your dishwater anything that may have touched the contaminated food.
    • Make sure your family is extra cautious about following handwashing procedures when leaving the restroom – while we all know we should always wash our hands, it is easy, especially for kids, to be lazy about this at home when nobody is watching. These invisible bacteria can easily spread from one child to another with poor hand washing hygiene, so if you have to be the mean parent who stands over them and makes sure they wash their hands, every time, for a couple weeks, just suck it up and deal with it. Make anyone doing food prep additionally washes their hands prior to preparing and serving food. This is important as infection may have been picked up from other surfaces within the home throughout the day.
  2. Watch the symptoms

    Initially, E. coli may present as a simple stomach bug. Children can just have a tummy ache or mild diarrhea. It is usually only when symptoms worsen that parents start to become concerned. Unfortunately, the worst form of E.coli is sneaky because if it is a Shiga-toxin producing type of E. coli, after several days the diarrhea may seem to be getting better and a parent might overlook the symptoms of a potential kidney problem as part of a child’s natural healing process. Monitoring your child’s symptoms is highly recommended, as early medical intervention can help reduce long-term complications.
  3. Hydrate and be alert for any potential kidney problemHydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Keeping your child hydrated is the best thing you can do for them.It is a potentially life-threatening strain, like the Shiga toxin-producing strains, that parents need to be on the lookout for, as it causes kidney failure which can be fatal and if not caught and treated can still cause kidney problems for life.Those who have the more severe Shiga-toxin producing strains develop worsening symptoms, such as: listlessness, fatigue, easy bruising, and a loss of color in their cheeks. Try to keep your child hydrated. This is important because, in addition to the above symptoms, a lack of needing to go to the restroom is another symptom of a potential kidney problem. Doctors will also check if their cheeks and the inside of their eyelids lose their healthy pink tone.

    Good things to drink:

    • Water
    • Electrolyte containing drinks like pedialyte or Gatorade. *note, in this case, the glucose is actually good for you, so unless you are diabetic or have a problem with sugar, don’t go for the sugar-free stuff.
    • Salty broth, like a light chicken soup
  4. Eat, when able
    When your child feels able to eat, a little food will help his or her body feel strong and resist the infection naturally. Here is a list of good food items to feed a child who is dealing with a potential E. coli infection:

    • Salty soups, like chicken noodle soup (The body needs the sodium)
    • Fruit juices, the fresher the better (The body needs the potassium, so add that banana for a healthy smoothie!)
    • Easy carbs. Let’s not make things too complicated for that sick stomach. Save the quinoa and brown rice for another day and go with easy to digest simple starches like oyster crackers or saltine crackers, the plainest bread you can feed your child without sacrificing your moral integrity as a parent, and plain potatoes. (These provide glucose, important for “glucose-sodium cotransport”)
  5. Stay Home & Rest
    This one should be common sense, but I have to say it. I don’t care how many sports or after-school events your child is enrolled in, it is not worth their life, or the spread of the disease, to be taking your child out and about when they are dealing with diarrhea. Stay home. Make them sleep or watch TV. Bond over a movie or a board game if they are tired of being cooped up by themselves. Play hangman. Do anything that involves staying home and using a relatively low amount of physical energy, while giving YOU the opportunity to make them keep drinking fluids.
  6. Things NOT to do
    • Do NOT use antibiotics. If you have some leftover antibiotics at home, you may be tempted to try to use them on your child. Don’t. The CDC reports no positive benefit from doing so and may increase the risk of worsening to kidney problems.
    • Do NOT use Imodium or other similar antidiarrheal medications. The CDC cautions that these can also increase the risk worsening symptoms potentially leading to kidney failure.
    • Do NOT wait too long to see a doctor. Early medical attention can help recovery.
    • Do NOT feel guilty to press your doctor for E. coli testing. Some physicians will not automatically order an E. coli test. The test is the first step toward discovery. Trust your gut. Ask your doctor to test your child.
  7. When in doubt, go see your doctor!If you’re not sure your child is recovering fast enough, take them to the doctor. If at home hydration techniques were not adequate, your child may need intravenous fluids. You know your child and when something’s not right so for your peace of mind and your child’s health, go to the doctor if the symptoms still seem worrisome to you.


Please note, this information does not constitute or replace medical advice. You should always talk to your doctor and follow their recommendations, first and ask them about anything you are unsure about.