Escherichia coli (E coli) is a type of bacteria. An infection with this variety of bacteria generally causes diarrhoea. Children and the sick and elderly are particularly susceptible to more serious effects from this infection.
The source of E coli infection in New Zealand is usually from food that has been poorly stored or handled, especially over the summer months. Chicken is usually blamed as the culprit in the ‘food poisoning’ that results from E coli infection.
Poor food handling and storage, as well as passing on the infection from person to person from less than ideal hand hygiene often causes this infection to spread rapidly from person to person.
The first sign of an E coli infection is generally severe stomach cramps, followed by watery diarrhoea within an hour or two. If the infection worsens then sores may develop inside the intestines which then causes bloody diarrhoea as the bacteria keep growing.
The deaths from E coli infection in Europe are from severe infections that have progressed to dehydration and anaemia from blood loss and the diarrhoea, eventually causing kidney failure.
If you suspect food poisoning or an E coli infection, then act quickly. The severe stomach cramps signalling an infection is also a cue to seek treatment promptly.
The first step is rehydration. Rehydration preparations are available from your community pharmacy and your pharmacist will be able to advise you on their correct use and when to seek further help. It is best not to use medications that will slow down the diarrhoea as that may make the infection last longer.
You should also start vigilant hygiene measures, with towels and bedding changed frequently and any suspected sources of the infection disposed of to prevent further infections from starting.
If the infection has progressed to diarrhoea still present after 24 hours in a healthy adult, or sooner for someone who is young, elderly or at risk then you should consult your doctor. They may wish to take samples of the diarrhoea to determine exactly what is causing the problem, so effective treatment may be chosen.
If in doubt, contact your community pharmacist, who will be able to refer you to appropriate treatment and advice or enable urgent medical attention if needed.