Hemorrhagic Colitis

Overview of E. coli Food Poisoning and
Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS)

Escherichia coli infections are among the most dangerous of foodborne illnesses. The incidence of E. coli food poisoning is relatively low (less than 100,000 cases annually), but the rates of hospitalization and fatality are relatively high. Escherichia coli refers to a large and diverse group of bacteria that normally inhabit the digestive tracts of humans and other warm blooded animals (especially cattle). Most species of E. coli are harmless (even beneficial), but some strains can cause urinary tract infections, pneumonia and other illnesses. In particular, E. coli serotypes that produce Shiga toxin are especially pathogenic and can cause hemorrhagic colitis, bowel necrosis, seizures, severe anemia, kidney damage, renal failure, and death. Every year, between 50-100 Americans die, and over 2,000 are hospitalized because of E. coli infection. Learn more about other Types of Foodborne Illnesses.

E. coli bacteria are considered very hardy, meaning they can survive (even at low temperatures) on surfaces and in the environment generally for weeks. Humans need only ingest a very small number of E. coli organisms to become infected. After consumption, E. coli multiply in the large intestine and produce the Shiga toxin which inflame the digestive tract and cause other complications associated with this disease. Because there is an incubation period (usually 2-5 days), the full onset of symptoms may not occur until several days after exposure. Illness usually begins with diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and stomach cramps. In some cases, a slight fever may develop. The diarrhea often becomes visibly bloody which is considered the classic clinical sign of E. coli poisoning. Definitive diagnosis is made by laboratory testing of a stool sample from the infected patient.

There are many strains of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, but the one primarily responsible for most episodes of food poisoning is E. coli 0157:H. Although most people fully recover within 7-10 days, patients with E. coli 0157:H7 infection - especially children and the elderly - are at significant risk of suffering Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening condition characterized by hemolytic anemia (destruction of red blood cells), thrombocytopenia (low platelet count), and acute kidney failure. The CDC and some independent researchers have advised that antibiotics should not be prescribed for E. coli infections because they may increase the patient’s risk of developing HUS. About 10-15% of patients infected with E. coli 0157:H7 or other Shiga toxin-producing E. coli will experience mild to severe HUS. Patients suffering HUS usually require hospitalization lasting from several days to several months. Full recovery is most likely, but approximately 1 in 3 HUS patients will suffer long term sequelae such as loss of kidney function, damage to the pancreas, high blood pressure, blindness, and death in a small number of cases. The mortality rate for HUS has been significantly reduced, and is now only about 3-5% in the United States and other developed countries.

Transmission of E. coli Infection is Primarily Due
to Ingestion of Contaminated Food or Water

The majority of E. coli infections – especially E. coli 0157:H7 – are caused by consumption of a food or beverage product contaminated with E. coli pathogens from cattle manure or the feces of other warm blooded animals. E. coli food poisoning is most often associated with contaminated ground beef, but other known food sources have included meat from other livestock (chicken, pigs, sheep), venison, sausages, pepperoni, dairy products (especially unpasteurized milk and cheeses made from raw milk), unpasteurized apple, orange or other fruit juices, unpasteurized ciders, and raw produce such as lettuce, spinach, mushrooms, parsley and alfalfa sprouts. Meat usually becomes contaminated during slaughter when the animal’s intestines or feces have some contact with the carcass. Less frequently, persons become infected by ingesting water during recreation in a shallow lake, pool, or water park that has been contaminated by human or animal feces that contain E. coli pathogens. Well water and other water supplies intended for human consumption have become tainted and caused E. coli infections as well. Person-to-person transmission is also possible in circumstances where there is contact with human feces from an infected person. That is why hand washing is so important. There are also documented cases of animal-to-person transmission (usually via the hand-to-mouth route) following contact with livestock at a farm, fair or petting zoo.

Preventing E. coli Poisoning

Undercooked hamburger meat is most often implicated in E. coli cases, so the proper cooking and handling of ground beef is the primary means of prevention. All meat, especially ground beef, should be cooked thoroughly. The center of a hamburger should reach at least 160˚ F for a minimum of 15 seconds. No “pink” hamburger meat should ever be consumed. All raw produce should be washed thoroughly. Safe food handling techniques should be employed to avoid cross contamination during the preparation, service and/or storage of food items. Raw meats and their juices should never contact other food items, and utensils or surfaces (especially cutting boards) which have contacted raw meat must be cleaned to avoid cross contamination with cooked meat or other food. No one should prepare, handle or consume food without first washing their hands. Unpasteurized milk, juices or ciders should be avoided and should never be served to children. Anyone with diarrhea should wash their hands thoroughly after having a bowel movement. Anyone caring for a child or other person with diarrhea should wear disposable gloves and wash their hands after every encounter. Children should not share bath water with anyone who has had diarrhea and toddlers still in diapers should be kept out of swimming pools. Persons should avoid pools not adequately treated with chlorine.

Consult With An Experienced Atlanta, Georgia Food Poisoning Attorney

The Atlanta food safety lawyers at Ragland Law Firm, LLC specialize in representing persons who have suffered foodborne illness or an allergic food reaction. Learn more about the law firm’s Food Safety Case Results. The personal injury attorneys at Ragland Law Firm, LLC are also able to handle cases involving an outbreak of recreational water illness caused by E. coli or other waterborne pathogens. They are available to pursue lawsuits in Atlanta, Cartersville, Dalton, McDonough, Griffin, Conyers, Augusta, Macon and all other parts of Georgia. They are also available to represent victims of food poisoning or food allergy anaphylaxis in South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee and other states in the Southeast. Anyone who has suffered E. coli food poisoning or any other foodborne illness should contact us to consult with an experienced food safety lawyer.