Q: I just received a call from my doctor and was told I have E. coli. What is that and how serious is that? Is it treatable?
A: E. coli stands for escherichia coli, a kind of bacteria. Whether it?s serious depends on which of the hundreds of different strains have infected you, as well as the extent and location of the infection.
If you had one of the very dangerous strains in your intestines, such as e. coli 0157:H7, chances are you?d already be suffering from severe cramps and bloody diarrhea. And I would hope that you?d have at least begun treatment by now. In very old people and young children, e. coli 0157:H7 can lead to serious, life-threatening complications.
These hazardous forms of E. coli are spread when contaminated human or animal feces are ingested. This can happen more easily than you might think, because the bacteria can live in particles of feces that are too small to be observed.
Despite all the news about e. coli 0157:H7, most strains of the bacteria are harmless. They?re a normal component of our intestinal flora. But besides 0157:H7, a few other strains may cause illness in humans. E. coli is a somewhat common cause of urinary tract infections, for example.
You should ask your doctor for the specifics of your diagnosis. Ask what kind of infection you have and what, if any, treatment is recommended.
Meanwhile, to help prevent infection, learn safe food handling and other hygienic practices that will keep E. coli and other bad bugs from setting up shop in your gut. These practices include frequent hand washing, preparing and storing raw meat separately from other foods, not eating raw or undercooked meat or unpasteurized dairy products, and making sure not to let cooked foods sit out for too long.