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Protecting Yourself From the E. Coli Outbreak

A recent, and now deadly, outbreak of E. coli infections has consumers on the alert about the safety of romaine lettuce and other foods. The Centers for Disease Control wants to educate people that most types of E. coli are harmless, but others can make a person sick, or even die.

The CDC, FDA and state agencies are investigating the outbreak of infections linked to romaine from Yuma, AZ. Consumers are advised not to buy or eat lettuce unless it can be confirmed the product did not come from that region. This advice includes whole heads and hearts of romaine, chopped romaine, and salads and salad mixes containing romaine lettuce. If you do not know if the lettuce in a salad mix is romaine, do not eat it.

Twenty-four people have become ill with E. coli O157:H7 in California, and there are 121 cases in 25 states as of last week. One person in California has died. Fifty-two people have been hospitalized, including 14 people who developed a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome, says the CDC.

Escherichia coli, or E. coli, are bacteria found in the environment, foods and intestines of people and animals. According to the CDC, most E. coli are harmless and are actually an important part of a healthy human intestinal tract. However, some E. coli can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, bloodstream infections and other illnesses. The types of E. coli that can cause illness can be spread through contaminated water or food, or through contact with animals or people, CDC officials said.

Some kinds of E. coli bacteria cause disease when they make a toxin called Shiga toxin. The bacteria that make these toxins are called “Shiga toxin-producing E. coli,” or STEC for short. The most commonly identified STEC in the United States is E.coli O157:H7 (often shortened to E. coli O157, STEC O157, or even just O157).

CDC estimates that each year STEC causes 265,000 illness, 3,600 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in the U.S.

How do you know if you have contracted STEC infections? The symptoms may differ for each person, but typically include very bad stomach cramps and diarrhea that may be bloody and vomiting. A fever can also be present, but of 101 degrees or lower. Depending on their general health, most people are better within five to seven days.

The CDC recommends you contact your healthcare provider have diarrhea that lasts for more than three days, blood in your stool (poop), a high fever, or so much vomiting that you cannot keep liquids down and you pass very little urine (pee).

To help healthcare officials determine where your illness might have originated, write down what you ate the week before you began to get sick. It’s important to report your illness to the health department, to track outbreaks.

Here are some of the best ways to prevent contracting an E. coli infection, courtesy of the CDC:

  • Wash your hands. Wash hands after using the restroom or changing diapers, before and after preparing or eating food, and after contact with animals.
  • Don’t prepare food or drink for others when you are sick.
  • Cook meats thoroughly to kill harmful germs. Cook steaks and roasts to at least 145˚F and let rest for 3 minutes after you remove meat from the grill or stove. Cook ground beef and pork to at least 160˚F. Use a food thermometer to check the temperature of the meat.
  • Don’t cross-contaminate food preparation areas. Thoroughly wash hands, counters, cutting boards and utensils after they touch raw meat.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables before eating, unless the package says the contents have been washed.
  • Avoid raw milk, other unpasteurized dairy products and unpasteurized juices.

Certain people are at more of a risk to contract foodborne illnesses, including pregnant women, newborns, children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. Alcohol-based products can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands in some situations, but they are not a substitute for washing with soap and running water.

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