Here’s Why the Latest E. Coli Outbreak Affecting Romaine Lettuce Is Especially Dangerous

CDC warns of particularly dangerous strain

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a notice to consumers to avoid eating romaine lettuce products due to an outbreak of a particularly dangerous strain of E. coli bacteria.

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Why this outbreak is even worse

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, says emergency medicine specialist Baruch Fertel, MD.

“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,” Dr. Fertel explains. “This is more common in young children or those who are immunocompromised, and can cause kidney failure and long-term damage.” 

What is E. coli — and why does it cause problems?

E.coli is a bacteria that exists in multiple strains, Dr. Fertel says, 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.

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Symptoms of E.coli typically develop within three to five days, but may occur as soon as one day after ingesting tainted products and can last for up to eight days.

What medical care do you need for symptoms of E. coli?

In many cases, symptoms should resolve on their own with rest and plenty of fluids, Dr. Fertel says.

However, if a person begins to develop kidney complications, he notes that those symptoms will come on 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.

Neither antibiotics nor anti-diarrheal medications are recommended for treatment of E.coli O157, Dr. Fertel says, as both could potentially lead to increased kidney complications.

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How to protect you and your family from E. coli

When people become sick with a gastrointestinal illness, it’s important to maintain good hygiene and dry hands with paper towels instead of regular hand towels to avoid spreading the bacteria to others, he says.

“Every time someone uses the bathroom, it is important for them to wash their hands with soap, vigorously,” Dr. Fertel says. “It’s also important that they clean under their fingernails because some bacteria can get caught there.”

It’s also especially important to use good hygiene while preparing food, he adds, because E. coli can be transmitted by fresh produce and raw meats.

“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 says.

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