Escherichia coli: what it is and what foods it can contaminate

Escherichia coli: what it is and what foods it can contaminate

Escherichia coli is a bacterium that lives in the human intestine and several warm-blooded animals. Normally it is harmless but can give rise to diseases and contaminations.

Food poisoning: the most dangerous raw foods

Escherichia coli is a bacterium present in the colon which under normal conditions is part of the common and functional intestinal bacterial flora, but which can become pathogenic.

If it reproduces in excess, it can feed diseases, especially in people with weakened immune systems, in addition to having harmless strains, there are pathogenic varieties of Escherichia coli, since they are able to develop diseases even in healthy individuals. Among them are uropathogenic Escherichia coli which can cause urinary tract infections and trigger urethritis, cystitis, prostatitis and kidney infections. Other strains of this bacterium are instead the basis of gastrointestinal infections, but also of meningitis, septicemia, peritonitis, pneumonia and infections of other internal organs other than the intestine.

We often hear about Escherichia coli when we talk about food poisoning, this is because some foods, when they come into contact with this bacterium, are contaminated and the consumption of these foods can cause various kinds of disorders, from simple diarrhea to decidedly more serious diseases. Contagion can occur for example by drinking water or eating food contaminated by aquifers and by waste or waste water. Human and animal feces can in fact be poured into rivers, lakes, canals and seas.

Escherichia coli can contaminate meat during the slaughter or processing of the meat itself which, if it is not previously cooked when it is eaten, can infect those who ingest it, which is why products such as fast food burgers are at risk. But many vegetables are also at high risk, especially lettuce, spinach, sprouts, as well as unpasteurized fruit juices, as long as these products come into contact with bacteria due to the water with which they are grown or fertilizers. Attention also to raw milk and the products that derive from it (think of cheeses), since Escherichia coli can be transmitted from the udders dirty with manure to the milk that is obtained from them.

To diagnose an Escherichia coli infection, tests must be performed, in particular that of the stool and, if the infection concerns the urinary tract, that of the urine. With these tests and other laboratory tests, the presence of the bacterium can be detected. The doctor will then be able to define the most suitable treatment for the patient, although fortunately in the most common and less severe forms, the infection affects only the intestine and the main symptom is gastroenteritis, with diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain, sometimes even with nausea and vomiting. Escherichia coli gastroenteritis often resolves on its own, without the need for antibiotics or medications.

To prevent Escherichia coli infections, it is good to make sure that the water you drink is drinkable. The problem often arises abroad, in countries where water is not disinfected. In those countries, you should also avoid consuming ice and using tap water to brush your teeth. The traveler's common diarrhea often arises precisely from a contamination with Escherichia coli.

Generally, you should wash your hands thoroughly when touching raw food, both before and after. They should also be washed after going to the bathroom and touching animals. The meat must be cooked at at least 70 ° C, for at least 2 minutes, so that it is also cooked inside. Then be careful in using the same surfaces for the preparation of different foods, as well as always keeping the utensils you use clean.

Fruits and vegetables must be washed thoroughly with drinking water (even those packaged and ready for use) or peeled before consumption. The last precaution is to consume exclusively pasteurized milk, dairy products and fruit juices.

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