How to Protect Your Family from E. Coli

If news of an E. coli outbreak has you feeling anxious, you're not alone. Learn more about it and find out what you can do to avoid getting sick.

Daughter with her mother to wash their hands in the kitchen sinkPhoto: Shutterstock / Natalia Lebedinskaia

Interest in food safety surges every time a new outbreak of foodborne illness makes the news. Sure, we’ve all heard some of the rules before, but it’s easy to become lax and fall back into bad habits. Now’s a great time to get a refresher on how to avoid contamination, especially since exposure to bacteria like E. coli can cause a trip to the ER.

What is E. coli?

Escherichia coli bacteria (E. coli) is usually found living in the intestines of healthy animals and humans. While most strains are considered harmless, there are some that can cause severe abdominal cramping, vomiting and bloody diarrhea. We generally come in contact with it through contaminated water and foods such as undercooked ground beef and unwashed raw veggies. Most of us recover relatively quickly after exposure, but young kids, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems have a higher chance of becoming really sick. Exposure to E. coli can even be fatal.

How to avoid E. coli

There are no foolproof ways to avoid E. coli contamination, but taking these precautions is a good way to significantly reduce your risk.

  • Follow the CDC’s advice: When there is an outbreak, always follow directions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They’re the experts when it comes to protecting yourself.
  • Wash your hands: Before eating or preparing food, always wash your hands. Since bacteria are microscopic, it’s not good enough that your hands look clean. The same goes for when you’ve had contact with an animal (even your own) and after handling raw meat.
  • Avoid eating undercooked meats: Hamburgers should be cooked until they are 160 degrees Fahrenheit throughout. Use an accurate food thermometer and test the temperature where the meat is thickest. You may think that medium-rare meat makes a better-tasting burger, but undercooking increases the potential for contamination.
  • Drink safely: Read beverage labels where appropriate to make sure the contents are pasteurized. Pasteurization is a method of sterilization that kills bacteria found in milk, juice and apple cider. (Psst! Use leftover cider to make these ahh-mazingly delicious recipes).
  • Wash raw foods: Even though washing raw produce won’t necessarily rinse away all bacteria, it does reduce your risk of getting sick. Leafy greens in particular often have ridges that bacteria can easily attach to, so it’s even more important to give greens a good washing.

Since there is no magic-bullet treatment to stop the symptoms of an E. coli infection (antibiotics are not effective in all cases), we encourage you to focus on prevention. If it means avoiding a trip to the ER, it’s more than worth the time it takes to wash hands well and clean fresh produce thoroughly.

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Cheryl S. Grant
Cheryl S. Grant has reported & written for Reader's Digest, Cosmo, Glamour, Latina, Yoga Journal, MSN, USA Today, Family Circle, Brides, HGTV, Examiner, Details, Beach Body, Spa Weekly, You Beauty, Scoop Post, FitBit, Spice Island, and Health Daily. She investigates trends and targets profiles subjects using a combination of deep background research (database, periodicals, preliminary interviews, social media), write and edit compelling stories in a variety of beats including beauty, health, travel, nutrition, diet, law, medicine, advocacy, entertainment, the military and various social issues.