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Food Poisoning Alert: E. Coli Symptoms and Treatment

Medically reviewed by Regina Victoria Boyles, MD · Pediatrics

Written by Shienna Santelices · Updated Dec 18, 2022

Food Poisoning Alert: E. Coli Symptoms and Treatment

What is E. Coli?

Being aware of E. Coli symptoms and treatment may help one through bad bouts of food poisoning.

Escherichia coli, or E. coli, is a group of bacteria that naturally lives in the intestines of most animals. This includes humans. Its primary function is to help the body break down and digest the food that we consume. However, E. coli has many strains, and some of them are harmful.

Some people who have contracted E. coli strains do not get any infections or illnesses at all. Other people experience severe symptoms that may lead to severe complications.

E. coli can cause many different kinds of infections, which require different kinds of treatment. In this article, E. coli symptoms and treatment will be discussed in the case where someone is infected by E. coli through food consumption.

E. Coli Symptoms and Treatment: Sources of Infection

Enterohemorrhagic E. coli is the most common strain of E. coli bacteria that causes severe intestinal infection. This is due to the “Shiga” toxin it produces.

The following are common food items that may be contaminated by this bacteria strain:


The slaughtering process may cause contamination, as the intestines of the animal mixes with meat from other animals. The human-to-animal transmission of E. coli starts with eating raw or undercooked meats.

Unpasteurized Milk

Freshly pumped milk from cows can be contaminated as the cow’s breast and the milking equipment used can be tainted by E. coli. Moreover, products made from raw milk, such as soft cheese, can also be contaminated. It is important to heat the milk at a high temperature first to kill the bacteria (pasteurization) and other microorganisms before consumption.

Fruits and Vegetables

Some crops are usually planted near animal farms where animal feces are used as natural fertilizers. Runoff water may also enter the field of crops, contaminating the crops with E. coli bacteria.

Contaminated Water

Animal feces combined with rainwater may run through all types of waterways like ponds, rivers, streams, and even city-wide water supplies. If not filtered, the water that we drink can be contaminated.

E. Coli Symptoms and Treatment: What to Watch Out For

The signs and symptoms of E. coli infection vary. Some people may not experience symptoms at all, but some may get mild symptoms. Others may have severe life-threatening symptoms. People with E. coli infection often start experiencing symptoms three to four days after consuming contaminated food.

The most common mild symptoms include:

  • Abdominal cramps
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Low-grade fever with a temperature of less than 38.5˚C

Patients with mild symptoms can recover within a week, without hospitalization.

However, 5-10% of people infected with E. coli, may develop Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS). This infection travels through the bloodstream, destroying red blood cells. It is considered a life-threatening illness as it can damage the kidneys.

Symptoms of HUS include:

  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Vomiting

As the syndrome progresses, more symptoms may manifest, such as:

  • Decreased amounts of urine, with blood
  • Fatigue
  • Pale skin
  • Fast heart rate
  • Seizures
  • Kidney failure

HUS may develop seven days after the occurrence of the first symptom of E. coli infection.

Severe diarrhea within three days or longer is considered an emergency that needs immediate hospitalization to treat dehydration.

E. Coli Symptoms and Treatment: What To Do Next

It usually takes five to seven days to recover from E. coli symptoms, and treatments are needed to relieve mild symptoms. These include taking a rest with plenty of fluids for rehydration. People with severe symptoms may need to be treated through IV fluids.

  • Most E. coli infections are manageable by drinking plenty of water and taking a rest. Drinking plenty of fluids helps to replace fluids lost due to diarrhea and/or vomiting, and to prevent dehydration.
  • Antibiotics and antidiarrheal medications are not readily recommended as they may make the infection worse. They may trigger the development of HUS. However, people with HUS and experiencing dehydration might need to get hospitalized to receive IV fluids. They may also need to undergo other treatments, such as kidney dialysis and blood transfusions.
  • Drinking clear liquids, avoiding certain food items, and maintaining a healthy diet may help prevent complications.
  • People recovering from E. coli infection must only drink clear water and soup, and avoid drinks with caffeine and alcohol.
  • They should also avoid eating dairy products, fatty foods, high-fiber foods, and highly seasoned foods, as these make the symptoms worse.

Key Takeaway

Escherichia coli is a group of bacteria that live in the intestines of almost all animals and humans. However, some of its strains are harmful and may cause infections that may lead to severe complications, including death.

Mild symptoms of E. coli infection are manageable and an infected patient may fully recover at home. However, patients with severe infections might develop further complications, such as Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS). In conclusion, awareness of E. coli symptoms and treatment may help prevent more serious complications.

Learn more about Infectious Diseases here.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Regina Victoria Boyles, MD


Written by Shienna Santelices · Updated Dec 18, 2022

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