Concerned about E. coli? Here’s how to keep your food safe from the bacteria

  • Mary Caldwell
  • For the AJC
9:45 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018 Health

After the recent E. coli outbreak,  which killed at least two and sickened dozens of others, many are wondering what are the E. Coli symptoms and how to avoid from ever suffering from them.

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The following is what you need to know about E. coli and how to protect your food and yourself:

What is E. coli?

E. coli is a group of bacteria that's found in foods, the environment and in your intestines, according to the CDC. While most strains of E. coli won't make you sick, others can cause a variety of illnesses, including diarrhea, urinary tract infections and respiratory issues.

How can you be exposed to it?

The most common means of exposure is by eating contaminated food, which can include ground beef as well as fresh produce such as lettuce and spinach, the Mayo Clinic said. Contaminated water – possibly including "raw" water – and unpasteurized milk can also infect you with E. coli. The bacteria can also be spread through animals, with several outbreaks occurring that have been linked to petting zoos.

If one person has E. coli, it can spread, especially without proper handwashing.

What are the symptoms of an E. coli infection?

You may experience symptoms two to five days – or sometimes longer – after you take in E. coli, according to WebMD.

The most common symptoms are abdominal cramps, diarrhea, nausea and fatigue, and they'll usually go away on their own. You should avoid taking over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medications, which can prolong the infection. Also make sure you get plenty of fluids and rest as your body is recovering.

In some cases, E. coli can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which can lead to kidney failure. Symptoms of HUS include bloody diarrhea, decreased urination, blood in the urine, abdominal pain, extreme fatigue and unexplained bruising or bleeding from the nose and mouth. If you have any of these symptoms, call your doctor immediately.

FILE -- Romaine lettuce in New York, April 26, 2017. Health officials have linked romaine lettuce to a deadly outbreak of E. coli in Canada, while American officials continue to investigate the cause of illnesses in 13 states. (Karsten Moran/The New York Times)

How can you avoid E. coli contamination?

The following steps from and WebMD can help decrease your risk of getting sick from E. coli:

Avoid eating high-risk foods – including unpasteurized milk, undercooked ground beef and alfalfa sprouts. Also avoid foods that have recently been linked to E. coli exposure.

Use a meat thermometer – to ensure that the internal temperature of your ground beef reaches at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wash your hands thoroughly – for 10 to 15 seconds before making food, using the bathroom, diapering babies or having any contact with livestock.

Store fruits and veggies properly – above uncooked meat, so juices can't drip down and contaminate the produce.

Wash produce – with a veggie brush.

Use separate cutting boards – for produce, raw meat, poultry and fish.

Take precautions when swimming – by not swallowing pool, lake or ocean water, which could be contaminated.