Earlier this year, news of an E. Coli outbreak captured national attention. Linked to romaine lettuce from a distributor in Yuma, Arizona, the virus sickened almost 200 people from 35 states. Eighty-nine hospitalizations and five deaths linked to the infected vegetable were also reported by the Center for Disease Control. But, despite all of the coverage, few people actually know what acquiring an E. Coli virus entails. To clear things up, the folks at BuzzFeed put together a comprehensive video about what E Coli does to your body.
First, let's look at some of the basics. The strain of the virus that caused this most recent outbreak is formally called O157:H7, and has required several updates from the CDC. According to the CDC, people who have ingested a Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) typically fall ill within three to four days after swallowing the bacteria. Symptoms of the E. Coli virus include cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea (that sometimes contains blood). While many people recover within a week, E. Coli, as evidenced by this most recent outbreak, can be serious and even fatal. Those with E. Coli may be at a higher risk of entering a kind of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Twenty-seven people afflicted by this specific outbreak developed HUS.
BuzzFeed News' Yalda Mostajeran stars in the video, which breaks down both what happens inside the body and what a person with the virus experiences. She opens by asking viewers, "Have you eve had a big old salad or a juicy burger, and then thought 'I don't feel too good'?" She then fades into the disintegration effect made popular by the film Avengers: Infinity War.
Mostajeran explains the E. Coli bacteria "...actually live in the intestines of healthy humans and animals. For the most part they're a harmless bacteria. But, some strains can cause big trouble." Several strains, she continues, have the potential to cause problems. "There are several strains infamous for causing bodily harm, including the ones containing the toxin called shiga," says Mostajeran — a concern echoed by the CDC, which cites that the strain is responsible for "caus[ing] 265,000 illness, 3,600 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in the United States."
"When you consume E. Coli contaminated foods or liquids, Shiga messes with the cells lining your intestines," Mostajeran explains. This, in turn, is what leads to gastrointestinal distress. "About five to ten percent of people infected with Shiga toxin-producing E. Coli can develop Hemolytic Uremia Syndrome." This is the severe complication mentioned earlier — it occurs when bacteria leaks into the bloodstream causing damage to surrounding blood vessels. In the worst cases, this can cause a person's kidneys to fail — older people, children, and those with compromised immune systems are at the highest risk of this complication, the CDC warns.
But how does one actually come into contact with the bacteria? Typically through improperly prepared food, Mostajeran explains. In terms of a product like lettuce, the most likely culprit is bacteria from animal feces (yes, unfortunately, poop). Since lettuce is not typically cooked before being served, there is not a chance for waste to be removed, or the bacteria to be killed.
Unpasteurized milk products and meat are also at risk of containing the harmful bacteria.
You can additionally contract the virus from another infected person. Mostajerann warns, "If an infected person doesn't wash their hands after using the restroom and then handles your food," you may find yourself in a world of hurt. Be wary of petting zoos as well, because "if you don't wash your hands after touching a farm animal ... that's another way you can get sick." WebMD also warns of this risk, highlighting an incident in Florida where five children developed cases of kidney failure that may have resulted from contact in a petting zoo in 2005.
There's no vaccine to prevent or treat the infection, but there are precautions one can take.
"Cook ground beef to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit to kill any lingering bacteria. Drink pasteurized milk which should be free of any of those bad stains. wash raw fruits and veggies — especially leafy greens — thoroughly. Lastly, avoid cross-contamination," says Mostajerann. The Food Standards Industry emphasizes the importance of this, suggesting ways to keep equipment for certain ingredients separate, as well as routines for personal hygiene.
E. Coli is a scary illness, but it is wise to understand what everyone is panicking about before getting caught up in it. Use this video to learn more about what goes into an E. Coli outbreak, the ways it affects your body, and how you can keep yourself safe.