7 things to know about the romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak

How to protect yourself from getting sick

How many times do we hear about E. coli in the news? Notices of minor outbreaks happen frequently around the country. Sometimes it’s from a swimming pool, other times from food.

In April 2018 news broke of a large outbreak from romaine lettuce thought to come from Yuma, Arizona. It has infected 98 people from 22 states, hospitalizing 46.

“There are different strains of E. coli, and this O157:H7 strain is the one that makes the news,” said Paul Schulz, M.D., system epidemiologist for Norton Healthcare. “The effects can be much more severe, causing possible kidney failure and even death, especially in the very young, elderly and chronically ill.”

It’s important to note that there have been no reported infections in Kentucky or Indiana, but nearby states have had illnesses thought to be part of the outbreak.

What are the facts around E. coli infections and how worried should you be?

What is causing this outbreak?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suspects the April 2018 outbreak to be from romaine lettuce that can be bought as whole heads or bagged, chopped lettuce, grown in the Yuma, Arizona area.

What causes E. coli infections?

E. coli is short for Escherichia coli, a bacteria found in the intestines of healthy people and animals. While most E. coli bacteria do not cause issues, certain strains can be a problem, causing stomach issues including severe cramps, diarrhea and vomiting.

You can be exposed to the dangerous strains of E. coli bacteria in many ways — from kitchen countertops, compost piles, contaminated food and beverages, even swimming or canoeing in a local waterway.

What should I do to prevent getting sick?

The CDC recommends not buying romaine lettuce from Yuma, Arizona. If you can’t tell where the lettuce came from, do not eat or buy it. This includes any kind of romaine lettuce: whole heads, romaine hearts, chopped, baby, organic and mixes containing romaine.

To prevent yourself from getting sick from other sources of E. coli, you can take precautions. In addition to washing all fruits and vegetables and completely cooking meat, it’s important to wash your hands before eating (all the time) and before and after using the bathroom (all the time).

How long does it take for an E. coli infection to show up?

If you have eaten something contaminated by this severe strain of E. coli bacteria, you may develop symptoms within a day or up to 10 days after.

What are the symptoms I may get with E. coli O157:H7?

According to the CDC, the infection starts with mild stomach pain and/or diarrhea that gets worse after several days. It may turn into severe stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting. It also may cause a low fever.

The O157:H7 strain of E. coli also can cause a severe kidney issue called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) in around 5 to 10 percent of people. It can start around seven days after the first symptoms. Signs you might have HUS include decreased frequency of urination, feeling tired and losing pink color in cheeks and inside the lower eyelids. If you have any of these symptoms, you need immediate medical attention. Your kidneys may stop working and cause other serious medical issues.

What should I do if I get sick?

Most people get better within five to seven days. However, if you have diarrhea for more than three days, a high fever, bloody diarrhea and severe vomiting, you need to call your doctor. If you have symptoms of HUS (mentioned above), seek immediate medical attention.

How is an E. coli infection treated?

Most of the time, you’ll treat the symptoms. This includes drinking a lot of fluids to prevent dehydration, resting and eating bland floods. Consider the “BRAT” diet of bananas, rice, apples and toast. Antibiotics are generally not prescribed for E. coli, as they can increase the risk of developing HUS. Anti-diarrhea medications also can increase that risk.

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