Sunday, October 21, 2007

Escherichia coli

I was shocked, amazed, stunned (and kinda grossed out) when I discovered that my sweet mother-in-law had contracted a case of E. coli while traveling earlier this year. She had symptoms for more than three months, but her regular physician had been unable to determine the cause of her digestive problems, exhaustion and other telltale signs.

But even more disturbing is the misinformation I've encountered since. Amazing how little people know, even people who should know, about this particular bacteria. So, consider this my attempt to educate if you care. Ignore me if you don't care, I'm getting used to it.

E. coli lives in your lower intestines. Mine, too. Everyone's, and most mammalian animals', too. It's not a big, bad bug at all, but helps us digest our food and create vitamin K, which is essential to proper blood clotting.

Not all strains of E. coli cause illness. There are a few that cause food poisoning symptoms, which are usually contracted from eating unwashed produce or contaminated meat. One strain can even cause life threatening complications. That is the strain that showed up in the great spinach panic of 2006 that had us all leery of bagged salads. But did you know that same strain has been found in house flies and fruit flies?

E. coli isn't common as an airborne bacteria except at some farms and petting zoos. So, you can kiss the kids when you have it, and they won't get sick, unless you have the bacteria on your lips at the time.

Since the bacteria likes the warm, dark, moist intestine and dies out when exposed to extremes of temperature and dryness, most cases of E. coli poisoning come from eating food which has been contaminated by infected feces. No delicate way to put it, folks, if you're going to eat produce, wash it first, and if it's meat, be sure it's cooked thoroughly. E. coli does grow at refrigerator temperatures, but reheating refrigerated food kills off live bacteria making it safe once again.

Treatment of E. coli that persists more than two weeks involves antibiotics appropriate to the particular strain of bacteria causing the problem. Unfortunately, penicillin and cephalosporin are almost useless against E. coli poisoning, because of their overuse. E. coli are quickly becoming antibiotic resistant, and in an August, 2007 article in Science, adaptative mutations are increasing at a much higher rate than previously thought. Research is being conducted in the UK on a "superbug" E. coli that is resistant to all but a handful of antibiotics.

An interesting note for us treat-it-with-whole-foods types: There is some evidence that the tannins in cranberries actually change the shape of the bacteria, the cell membrane and the attaching ability of the bacteria, making it more difficult for the bacteria to multiply and make us sick. No, not the yummy mostly sugar cran-drinks, but real, tart, cranberries and undiluted juice. Now, that's a good mutation!

Some good ways to avoid getting ill:

1) Wash your hands. 15-20 seconds in hot water. Regular soap works just as well as antibacterial soaps and might help slow the antibiotic resistant mutations we are currently seeing. After you wash your hands in a public restroom, use a paper towel to touch surfaces until you are free of the restroom. This includes faucet and door handles.

2) Ordering food well done is a good first step, but if a restaurant worker then touches your cooked food with dirty hands, the doneness of your steak won't matter. Only eat where you trust.

3) If you MUST fly on an airplane, hit all hard surfaces around your seat with an alcohol wipe as soon as you get on board. If you can, avoid using the restroom on a plane.

4) Heated public pools and spas. Don't. Just don't.

5) When going to a movie, get there early and wipe down the hard surfaces of the seat, and armrest with an alcohol wipe. Let's think this through for a minute. You're out shopping and hubby feels tired, so you take a break in the theatre. While there, he runs to the restroom with a digestive upset. But, he doesn't want to miss too much of the movie, so he doesn't wash up as thoroughly as he should. How often do you think the ushers clean those armrests? If you said "never", you are right.

6) Homeschool. No fooling. It's a good way to keep your family healthy! Not only are your children getting more exercise, fresh air and sunshine, but they aren't exposed as often to ill kids in close quarters. You can better help them make good nutrition choices and teach proper handwashing technique at home, too.

7) Stay away from doctors. Well, okay, maybe not entirely. But at least be extra-vigilant about washing while you are there and after you leave. And gently remind the doctors and nurses to wash before touching you!

Some signs of E. coli toxicity include: urinary tract infection (especially in women and the elderly), flatulence, non-bloody diarrhea, and possibly a slight fever. Sometimes there are no symptoms at all. Most cases resolve without antibiotics after 5-10 days. If you have symptoms for longer than this time, a simple test can rule out E. coli. In some individuals, such as the very young, old or immunocompromised, E. coli can cause a syndrome that includes kidney failure.

Okay, I'm climbing down from the soapbox now. And I'm gonna go wash my hands.

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