What is E. Coli?

What is E. Coli?

E. Coli is a group of bacteria that live in intestines of animals including humans. Most strains of Escherichia coli are harmless and they are actually a sign of a healthy digestive tract. Some strains can cause bloody diarrhea, urinary tract infections, and even kidney failure. E. Coli outbreaks are some of the most common causes of foodborne illness outbreaks in the United States. Most recently, the E. Coli outbreak from various Chipotle stores caused a lot of bad publicity for the restaurant chain.

E. Coli Causes

  • Water can become contaminated in E. coli and then spread to fresh produce during growing season. Raw vegetables and fruit are susceptible to becoming contaminated, especially sprouts.
  • Undercooked meats can carry the bacteria if the meat has not reached 160°F
  • Unpasteurized milk products have a higher risk of containing E. coli
  • Contact with feces of infected humans or animals
  • Drinking water from a pool or lake with infected water may cause an infection

E. Coli Symptoms

Symptoms for E. coli typically arise 1 to 10 days after initial contact with contaminated foods and last between 5 to 10 days.

  • Stomach pain
  • Severe bloody diarrhea
  • Vomiting

A specific strain of E. Coli, E. coli O157:H7 is the most common strain of these bacteria that can cause Hemolytic-uremic syndrome or HUS. About 5-10% of those who are infected with this type of E. coli eventually develop HUS. This more severe strain of E. Coli causes anemia which can lead to kidney failure. These E. coli are called “Shiga-toxin producing” E. coli, otherwise known as STEC. Signs of HUS typically appear a week after the initial symptoms of diarrhea appear. If the following symptoms of HUS appear, you should contact a doctor immediately to monitor the recovery. Some patients suffer permanent damage or die.

  • Decreased amount of urine
  • Paleness of the skin
  • Fever
  • Bruising

E. Coli Treatment

E. coli should not be treated with antibiotics as tests have not shown them to be effective. Anti-diarrheal medicine should also be avoided as they slow down digestion and may allow more time for you body to absorb the toxins and bacteria.

Recent E. Coli Outbreaks



  • General Mills flour infected 63 individuals in 24 states
  • One person developed HUS, 17 were hospitalized
  • The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reminds people not to eat raw batter or dough


Chipotle Outbreak

  • Two outbreaks occurred but the food item related to the two incidents was not found.
  • In the first case of STEC 026, 55 people were infected in 11 different states. In the second, 5 people were infected across 3 states.
  • Food businesses should keep close track of their inventory shipments so that government authorities can quickly trace the source of an outbreak.

Please visit our Food Poisoning Vs Stomach Flu page for the breakdown of foodborne illness terms. Find more information at our Foodborne Illness on other causes of E. Coli and ways of treating and preventing food poisoning.