E. coli Poisoning: Treatment and Prevention

If you're looking this topic up, you've probably either got E. coli poisoning or suspect that you may have one. This article will help you treat it the best you can, after gauging its severity, and also tell you how to prevent it, so you don’t have such a nasty episode again.

What is E. coli Poisoning?

Escherichia coli or E. coli is a type of bacterium that lives in the intestines of all humans and some animals. Mostly E. coli are harmless, and useful even, to keep the gut functioning properly. However, when certain strains are acquired from contaminated sources of food and water, they can cause intestinal infection.

The E. coli O157:H7 strain is one of the high-risk varieties as it produces the Shiga toxin that leads to illness and possible complications. The Shiga toxin E. coli strains i.e., STEC serotype is primarily responsible for mist public outbreaks or even private incidences of food poisoning and dysentery as it has many similarities with the Shigella dysenteriae bacterium. Of the STEC and related strains, there are broadly six subtypes that cause illness. A few of the most commonly diagnosed subtypes and their sources are as follows −

Enterohemorrhagic (EHEC) E. Coli subtype

This is the most common variant in terms of public outbreaks. It mostly stems from undercooked meat like beef, particularly ground beef found in hamburger meat. It can rupture the intestinal lining and cause bloody diarrhea and is more likely to lead to complications like hemolytic-uremic syndrome (damage to the blood vessels in your kidneys and possible kidney failure).

Enteropathogenic (EPEC)

This E. coli subtype usually comes from contaminated vegetables and other farm produce is the main cause of runny diarrhea, and can be transmitted from one person to another.

Enterotoxigenic (ETEC)

This E. coli variant is location specific, as it stems from a lack of sanitary, potable drinking water and measures to ensure hygienic cooking environments. It is common in underdeveloped parts of lower-income countries, causes dehydration and diarrhea in infants, and is often referred to as traveler's diarrhea. A similar variant found in both high- and low-income countries is Enteroaggregative (EAEC) E. coli which occurs regardless of sanitation measures.

Diffusely Adherent (DAEC) and Entero-invasive (EIEC)

Both these variants are comparatively underdiagnosed, although they do cause significant gastric distress. EIEC also mimics shigellosis, in terms of symptoms such as abdominal cramps, high fever, and diarrhea, whereas the DAEC is distinguished by the bacterial ability to bind across the entirety of intestinal cell surfaces.

Ways to Treat E. coli Poisoning

As seen above, E. coli poisonings could be attributed to a variety of factors and consequently any number of different strains. So, treatment will depend on the strain you have, if the symptoms are very specific. But usually, for most E. coli poisonings, the treatment is primarily self-care.

Patients are advised to take plenty of fluids and rest as much as possible. Do not treat these infections with antibiotics unless your doctor expressly recommends it, because intestinal infections will resolve on their own within 3-7 days. Using antibiotics unnecessarily can build up the pathogens’ resistance and also lead to complications like HUS, as can the use of over-the-counter (OTC)anti-diarrheal medications without a medical prescription. Diarrhoea is the body’s way of flushing out toxins, and if it is interrupted, the toxins could build up by slowing down the digestive system, leading to severe complications.

You should see a doctor if the infection hasn’t resolved and you continue to have severe diarrhea for the 4th day. For children, consult a doctor on the 2nd day of the infection, as they are more prone to complications. Check for symptoms like blood or pus in the stools, vomiting episodes lasting more than 12 hours, high fever, dizziness, excessive thirst, and abdominal pain despite bowel movements. These could indicate a more serious infection, needing a thorough check-up and medication.

Prevention of E. coli Poisoning

E. coli poisoning can be an unpleasant, messy episode. To avoid that happening again, as far as possible take these preventative measures −


All meats and poultry should be cooked thoroughly on high heat. Many variants of E. coli survive up to 50 degrees Celsius. Use a meat thermometer to ensure cooking temperatures are between 63-73 degrees Celsius (this varies depending on the meat/seafood/poultry/eggs being used), to make sure you kill all bacteria. Hamburgers especially should be cooked up to 71 degrees Celsius.

Keep any meats, poultry, and seafood dishes at a distance away from other foods and clean utensils to prevent bacterial cross-contamination. Clean any dishes or utensils used for preparing meat between each use. Thaw any meats in the microwave or the refrigerator, and not on countertops used for preparing other foods. While thawing, keep the meat inside a plastic bag.

Only consume pasteurized dairy products like milk and yogurt, and pasteurized juices and ciders.


Wash all produce you buy even if they are pre-packaged and pre-washed. For leafy greens, take them apart and rinse the crevices, which are ideal breeding grounds for bacteria. Never rinse raw meat under the sink’s running water – impurities will be transferred to other dishes. You can also soak them in salt or lemon water to get rid of germs.

Wash your utensils for meat and vegetables separately. Wash knives and cutting boards used for raw meat thoroughly with soapy, hot water. Cutting boards for meat should be either ceramic or plastic which is easier for preparation and cleaning than wooden boards.

Handwashing and Hygiene

Always wash your hands after going to the bathroom, changing diapers, petting your animals, and handling raw meat. Also wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, before preparing baby bottles, feeding infants, or handling/washing baby toys that infants put in their mouths. Don’t swallow any water while swimming in the pool or other water bodies.


This article has spelled out the preventative measures for E. coli that are in your control. Follow the rules, and stay healthy!

Updated on: 18-Apr-2023


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