Healthy Living

E. Coli Infection Symptoms: Cramps, Fatigue, Nausea, and More

E. Coli Infection Symptoms: Cramps, Fatigue, Nausea, and More

Key Takeaways

  • Eschericia coli or E. coli is a bacterium that dwells in the lower intestines of animals and humans.
  • It is a contagious medical condition that can spread through water contamination, food contamination, person-to-person, or animal-to-person.
  • If not treated on time, E. coli infections can tend to complicate the condition for the individual, and this can also lead to death.

What is E. Coli?

E. coli is a bacterium that normally dwells in the intestines of both animals and humans. However, there are certain types of E. coli, specially E. coli 0157:H7, that are known to cause intestinal infection, which would lead to cramps, vomiting, and bloody diarrhea. E. coli is also called Escherichia coli. Most of the E. coli varieties do not cause much harm, but some may cause relatively less instance of basic diarrhea.

One can get exposed to E. coli from water or food that is contaminated. For example, raw vegetables that are not cleaned properly and consumed may contain E. Coli bacteria. Also, meat that is not cooked properly or is under-cooked can also lead to exposure to the bacteria. Those individuals who have a strong immunity usually recover from the E. coli 0157:H7 within a week’s time. However, when it comes to children or elderly adults, it can have a greater risk of developing a life-threatening medical condition, such as kidney failure, which is also called uremic syndrome.

Symptoms pertaining to the intestinal infection from E. coli can include pain in the abdomen, fever, diarrhea, and dehydration. Proper preparation of food and maintaining good hygiene along with pure drinking water can greatly reduce the risk of developing such intestinal infections. Also, most of the cases E. coli infection can be treated at home, and the symptoms usually get resolved within a few days or maximum it would take a week’s time for healing.

Symptoms of E. Coli Infection

Intestinal infection caused by E. coli starts showing its symptoms between one and five days after the individual has been infected with this bacteria, and those symptoms may include the following:

These symptoms can last a few days to more than a week. Children are more prone to developing this infection than adults. Some of the individuals who are infected may not notice the symptoms initially and can unknowingly spread the infection to others. Also, there are other medical conditions that show similar symptoms to E. coli infection. The diagnosis of E. coli can become complicated, since the fact that most of the infections caused due to bacteria cause diarrhea, which is then accompanied by fever. However, in case the individual does not have any signs of fever or if it is a mild fever, then the doctor can suspect it to be some other bacteria that is causing the symptoms in the individual.

If the E. coli infection becomes severe, then the individual would start experiencing the following symptoms:

  • Dehydration
  • Bruising easily
  • Anemia
  • Skin turning pale
  • Urine that contains blood
  • Bleeding from the nose
  • Irregular breathing or shortness in the breath
  • Little or no urine output
  • Renal failure
  • Seizures
  • Changes in the mood or mental changes
  • Jaundice (very rare)
  • Generalized swelling

Therefore, one should not delay calling the doctor if they experience any of the above mentioned serious symptoms.

When it is a confirmed case of E. coli intestinal infection, then bloody diarrhea is quite common. However, that doesn’t mean that a non-bloody diarrhea would indicate non-existence of the infection.

The symptoms of E. coli infection fall under three different categories:

Bloody diarrhea or hemorrhagic: This is defined as increase in the amount of blood in the stool or diarrheal stool that does not decrease over time, and it is often later accompanied by pain in the abdomen, which becomes severe over time. Although this issue can resolve over a week’s time, in some instances, it can lead to the individual developing anemia, dehydration, and possibly death.

Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS): This syndrome's symptoms include anemia, bruising, bleeding of the nose, fever, irregular breaths, and swelling in any part of the body that mostly occurs on the hands or legs. This syndrome is due to the destruction of the blood platelets that are very much needed for clotting of the blood. The symptoms pertaining to HUS usually start developing about seven to ten days after the initial start of the diarrhea.

This syndrome is one of the most common causes of kidney failure in children. Those children under the age of ten years are the ones most likely to develop this syndrome. The E. coli 0157:H7 produces toxins that tend to damage the kidneys and also destroy the platelets, leading to kidney failure, excessive bleeding, and, in the worst scenario, death.

According to certain studies, about 8 to 9 percent of those who are infected with this bacterium develop a condition that is called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). This syndrome leads to damage of the red blood cells, and it can lead to kidney failure, which is life threatening. Such cases are very severe when the infected person is a child, a pregnant woman, or an older adult. The onset of HUS starts from five to ten days after the start of diarrhea.

Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP): This medical condition is caused by the excess loss of platelets. However, the symptoms that occur are not the same, and it mostly occurs in elderly adults. A few of the symptoms pertaining to this medical condition include weakness, fever, kidney failure, mental changes or impairments, and bruising easily.

These symptoms tend to progress rapidly and lead to organ failure and, in severe case, death. In the 80s, TTP was considered very fatal, but due to some new techniques, such as plasma exchange or infusion techniques, the death rate has been reduced in TTP patients to about 10 percent.

Visit to the doctor  

Infection of the intestine caused by E. coli can lead to a number of symptoms, such as dehydration and other serious complications, such as kidney failure, bloody stool, and in the most extreme case, it can lead to death, as well. Hence, one should not ignore such signs and rather visit the doctor before it is too late. An untreated infection can spread rather quickly, and it can infect others around the infected individual. One should visit the doctor if:

  • There is presence of pus or blood in the stool.
  • One has recently traveled abroad, and there are certain symptoms related to intestinal infection.
  • One has troubles keeping liquids down.
  • Pain in the abdomen doesn’t seem to get better, even after a bowel movement.
  • There are symptoms pertaining to diarrhea, such as little or no urine output, dizziness, and feeling extremely thirsty.
  • Continuous diarrhea that doesn’t seem to get better, even after four to five days in case of adults and two days when it comes to infants or children.
  • Diarrhea that is accompanied by sudden fever.
  • Vomiting that has continued for more than 12 hours. In the case of small children, if they start vomiting, it is better to visit the doctor without causing any delay.

Causes of E. Coli Infection

Animals or human beings have some E. coli in their intestines, but there are some strains of this bacteria that can lead to infection. There is a number of ways the bacteria can enter the body:

  • Food handling issues: In any cases if the food is prepared at home or at a restaurant, then unsafe handling of the food or unhygienic ways of preparation can lead to contamination of the food. Below are few of the common causes of food p
    • Consumption of raw sea food products
    • Failure to wash hands properly before preparing or eating the food
    • Consumption of raw products that have not been washed thoroughly
    • Using of utensils, cutting boards, or the serving dishes that were not cleaned properly, thus causing cross contamination
    • Drinking unpasteurized milk
    • Consumption of those food items that have not been stored properly
    • Consumption of any dairy products or mayonnaise containing food items that have been left out for a long time. These items need to be refrigerated when not in use.
    • Consumption of those food items that were not cooked properly at the right temperature or for a set duration of time. This is very much important for poultry and meat products.

Contamination of water: Poor sanitation is the number one cause of water contamination leading to growth of bacteria from human or animal waste. One can get infection from drinking this contaminated water or swimming in that water. Water presents another significant route of E. coli transmission. Raw sewage and farm runoff introduced in bodies of water can put E. coli in water supplies for public consumption.

    • Through the use of ozone, ultraviolet radiation, and chlorine, public water sources can be clear of E. coli, which could have resulted in outbreaks. You can also get E. coli infection by drinking or bathing water from private wells and swimming in contaminated pools or lakes. The private wells in certain places are also a cause of concern, especially because they do not have any disinfecting systems.
    • One of the most contaminated supplies of water is the rural water supply. Many of the people get infected after bathing or swimming in pools or lakes that are contaminated with feces.
  • Food processing: During the process of slaughtering, meat products tend to acquire bacteria from the intestines of the animals. For example, when the cattle are slaughtered and processed, the E. coli bacteria in their intestines get on the meat. The ground meat combines meat from various animals, thus increasing the contamination risk.
    • The runoff from cattle can tend to contaminate the fields where there is fresh produce grown. There are certain vegetables that are vulnerable to contamination, which include lettuce, spinach, etc.
  • Individual to another person: The bacteria E. coli are also known to spread from one person to another, if the infected person has not washed their hands properly after a bowel movement. This bacterium then spreads through the person touching someone or something else, such as food or water. Certain places that are vulnerable for spreading infection are schools, colleges, hospitals, or child care facilities. There have also been outbreaks among children who have visited zoos and the barns at county fairs.
  • Animals: Those individuals who work with animals, such as cows, goats, and sheep, are at an increased chance of getting infected with the E. coli bacteria. Anyone who touches animals or those who work in such an environment where there are animals around should always ensure to wash their hands thoroughly and on a regular basis.

Treatment for E. Coli Infection

For the infection caused by E. coli, there are currently no treatments to get complete relief from this bacteria or relief from the symptoms and complications. For many of the people, the treatment would include rest and an increase in the intake of fluids so as to prevent the instance of dehydration and fatigue.

One should avoid the intake of anti-diarrheal medications, since they tend to slow down the digestive system, thus preventing the body from flushing out the toxins or waste. Doctors also usually do not recommend the intake of antibiotics, since they can increase the risk of serious complications.

If an individual has been diagnosed with a serious strain of E. coli infection, such as the hemolytic uremic syndrome, then the only option is to get the person hospitalized so as to provide them with supportive care and also provide intravenous fluids. If required, kidney dialysis or blood transfusions can be done for the complicated cases.

Changes in the lifestyle

There are different ways to adapt your lifestyle in coping with E. Coli.

If there is an instance of only mild diarrhea or stomach cramps, you can easily treat E. coli infection at home. By increasing the intake of fluids, such as water or fresh fruit juice, one can prevent dehydration and speed up recovery. Clear fluids, such as juices, water, clear sodas, broths, and gelatin, are preferable. Gradually introduce low-fiber food, such as soda crackers, eggs, toast, or rice so as to gain strength and to start building up the lost immunity.