What’s good E coli and what’s bad?

What are the signs of an E coli infection and what should you do about it if your child develops symptoms?


What is E coli?

Escherichia coli, or E coli, is a common bacterium that lives in the intestines of most animals, including humans. All of us have billions of E coli bacteria in our tummies.


It’s commonly known as the “hamburger bug” due to the number of cases caused by eating undercooked meat, but it can also be transferred by stroking or handling animals and then putting your hands in your mouth.

There are several different strains of the bug, most of which are harmless. In fact, some are even beneficial as they generate vitamin K, which helps blood clot and builds strong bones.

However, some strains of E coli are pathogens (organisms that cause diseases). One of the most serious of these is the O157:H7 strain, which is responsible for an outbreak at Godstone Farm. A new strain has been caused serious illness and a number of deaths in Germany, thought to be carried through bean sprouts or other salad vegetable.

What are the symptoms and treatment?

O157:H7 infections cause diarrhoea, often with blood in the stools, and stomach cramps. These symptoms last about a week, and don’t usually need treatment.

It’s important not to give your child any medication without talking to your doctor first because some medications can kill off bacteria in the gut that is helping to control the infection.

The best thing is to make sure your child drinks plenty of water to replace fluids lost through diarrhoea and vomiting. Your doctor may recommend an anti-diarrhoeal medication and a fluid replacement.

Are there any complications?

Unfortunately, O157:H7 infections can be quite dangerous for young children.

Particularly severe infections can cause haemolytic-uraemic syndrome. This leads to the destruction of red blood cells and kidney failure and can be fatal. Fortunately though, this is rare.

“Around 15% of children do go on to get complications which can affect the brain and the heart as well as the kidneys,” says Professor Hugh Pennington, an expert in bacteriology. “The kidney complications can be quite severe, resulting in long-term damage in some instances and the need to use a kidney dialysis machine.

“There is not much that can be done regarding the treatment, it’s often just a case of supporting the patient while they fight the bug.”

Is it safe for my children to visit farms and pet animals?

The risk of contracting serious strains of E coli from farm animals is rare. However, farm animals do get the bacteria on their coats when they stand or lie down in manure in fields and pens.

It’s therefore vital that if your child strokes farm animals she should wash her hands after each contact with them. This is even more imperative before she puts her hands anywhere near her mouth or has anything to eat. If you’re visiting a farm carry bacterial hand wipes or gels, although it’s still vital that your child washes her hands in the farm’s own anti-bacterial sinks.

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