A Multi-State E. Coli Outbreak: What You Need to Know

This post has been updated with new information. Please see the end section for more. 

In the past four weeks there have been 17 reported cases of  E. coli across seven US states, signaling a potential problem that the CDC is keen to investigate.

Together with officials from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the CDC is attempting to pin down the source of an outbreak that has so far caused several hospitalizations.

New Jersey has been the hardest hit with six cases. Other states with infection cases include Idaho, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Missouri and Washington.

E. Coli Outbreak Map via CDC

E. Coli Outbreak Map via CDC

The CDC said in a press release:

“As of April 9, 2018, 17 people infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 have been reported from 7 states. … Illnesses started on dates ranging from March 22, 2018 to March 31, 2018. Ill people range in age from 12 to 84 years, with a median age of 41. Among ill people, 65% are female. Six ill people have been hospitalized, including one person who developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure. No deaths have been reported.”

The CDC is stressing that, at this time, there is no reason to think this infection is the result of bad practices at any particular restaurant or facility, and those who have been infected should not be unduly worried but should report suspected cases to their doctors.

What is E. coli?

E. coli is a type of bacteria also referred to as Escherichia coli. It is actually found in humans and animals in their intestines and is a part of the bacterial “flora” that live in our bodies. Most E. coil bacteria are harmless to us, but some can cause infections and illness.

For our purposes, the strain that is most commonly covered in the news is the a strain called E. coli 0157. This strain produces toxins known as Shiga toxins, and they can make people ill. This is the strain that has been detected in this latest outbreak.

What are the symptoms of an E. coli infection?

Typical E. coli symptoms include:

  • fever
  • severe stomach cramps
  • frequent vomiting
  • diarrhea

Infected people may find blood in their stool, too.

These symptoms usually last between one or two weeks. There is no singular treatment for E. coli infection, and most people will get better without medical treatment. However, some people may require hospitalization in order to be given fluids and other support. Antibiotics are not effective.

Toxin-producing E. coli bacteria also carry the added risk of triggering haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). This health problem, which appears in about five to 10 percent of those infected by the toxin-producing bacteria, can damage the kidneys and, in extreme cases lead to renal failure and death. Obviously, suspected HUS must be treated immediately.

How do people contract E. coli?

E. coli infection can happen in a number of ways.

Eating food that carries the bacteria is one major source of infection. Undercooked meat and raw milk products tend to be a high risk. Unwashed vegetables, particularly leafy vegetables found in salads, are also sometimes responsible.

Contact with infected animals or their waste is another source of infection. For example, if you go on a trip to a farm or are out camping in areas where an infected animal might have been, you could contract an E. coli infection.

Water that is improperly treated may also carry an infection risk. Infection can also come from swimming pools or through playing in untreated water, for example going swimming in ponds or streams.

Lastly, infection can come from coming into contact with someone who has already been infected.

It is possible to have an E. coli infection and not show any symptoms at all. That is why it is vital we all practice good hygiene, particularly if we are preparing food or are in regular contact with the elderly or otherwise vulnerable.

What do I do if I suspect I have E. coli?

The CDC recommends you seek treatment, ”if you have diarrhea that lasts for more than 3 days, or it is accompanied by high fever, blood in the stool, or so much vomiting that you cannot keep liquids down and you pass very little urine”.

Your healthcare provider will be able to run tests to determine if E. coli is responsible for your symptoms and if so can take the proper steps to contain an outbreak.

Usually, E. coli infection resolves itself without the need for intervention. If your symptoms worsen or you have been ill for a number of days without improvement, hospitalization may be necessary to avoid dehydration and potential kidney failure.

I live in an outbreak state. How do I avoid getting E. coli?

At the time of writing, the CDC has not identified the source of this multi-state outbreak and so has not issued any restrictions on individual restaurants, nor has it sent out an advisory. Therefore, it is reasonable to continue your daily activities, such as eating out with friends and buying your usual groceries.

One way to cut E. coli infection risk is to wash your hands thoroughly when using public restrooms and at home. Washing fruits and vegetables is also a good way to improve cleanliness, as well as keeping countertops and other food preparation surfaces as clean as possible.

Update 04/17/2018

There are now 35 reported cases of E.coli across 11 states.

The CDC believes that chopped romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Arizona growing region may be responsible but, at this time, no grower or brand has been identified as a source.

The CDC advises the public to throw away all chopped romaine lettuce even if they have previously eaten it and felt fine. Restaurants are advised to stop serving romaine lettuce. For more information, please head to the CDC’s factsheet site.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

39 comments

Margie F
Margie FOURIE2 months ago

I believe it occurs in eggs here in SA.

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Winn A
Winn A2 months ago

Thanks

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Winn A
Winn A2 months ago

Noted

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Chrissie R
Chrissie R2 months ago

Thank you for posting this timely information.

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Elaine W
Elaine W2 months ago

Thanks for this serious health danger alert.

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Shirley S
Shirley S2 months ago

Rewash "washed" products to be sure.

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Debbi W
Debbi W2 months ago

I believe E. Coli is usually contracted from eating fresh veggies from restaurants, cruise ships, or bagged vegetables. I buy organic and still wash off the veggies, although that certainly wouldn't sterilize them. kIF you always eat cooked veggies when out you'll be safer, but that cuts down on all of those fresh salads.

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Freya H
Freya H2 months ago

I wouldn't be surprised if Nature is warming up for a really nasty pandemic to unleash on us arrogant humans.

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Anne Moran
Anne Moran2 months ago

Nasty infection, to say the least...

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Alea C
Alea C3 months ago

I buy organic spinach that has already been washed.

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