The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a notice to consumers to avoid eating romaine lettuce products after an outbreak of a particularly dangerous strain of E. coli bacteria hospitalized dozens of people across the U.S.
According to Baruch Fertel, M.D., of Cleveland Clinic, this particular strain of E. coli, known as the O157:H7 strain, is especially dangerous because it produces a toxin that can potentially lead to kidney complications.
“What’s unique about this E.coli, and the O157 strain, is that it produces a toxin called shiga toxin, which is responsible for some of the severe symptoms and also causes a complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome,” he said. “This is more common in young children or those who are immunocompromised, and can cause kidney failure and long term damage.”
Dr. Fertel said that E.coli is a bacteria that exists in multiple strains, and is typically found in the intestines of humans and animals.
In most cases, this bacteria is harmless, and helps in the digestion of food. However, the O157 strain of E.coli can cause infection and symptoms, including severe stomach cramping, vomiting and diarrhea.
Symptoms of E.coli typically develop within 3-5 days, but may come as soon as one day and can last for up to eight days.
Dr. Fertel said in many cases, symptoms should resolve on their own with rest and plenty of fluids.
However, if a person begins to develop kidney complications, he said those symptoms will come about a week later. A person experiencing kidney complications will show signs of severe dehydration, such as a fast heart-rate, pale skin, lightheadedness, or decreased urination, and should therefore seek immediate medical care.
Dr. Fertel said neither antibiotics nor anti-diarrheal medications are recommended for treatment of E.coli O157, as both could potentially lead to increased complications with the kidneys.
When people become sick with a gastrointestinal illness, it’s important to maintain good hygiene and clean hands with paper towels instead of regular hand towels, to avoid spreading the bacteria to others, according to Dr. Fertel.
“The most important way people can protect themselves is by maintaining good hygiene,” he said. “Every time someone uses the bathroom, it is important for them to wash their hands with soap, vigorously. It’s also important that they clean under their fingernails, because some pieces of bacteria can get caught there.”
Dr. Fertel said it’s also especially important to use good hygiene while preparing food.
“When preparing food, it’s very important to make sure that the food surfaces that you use for raw meats are not the same ones that you use for produce prep, and that they’re appropriately sanitized afterwards,” he said.