Escherichia coli (E.coli) are common bacteria, normally found in the gut of warm-blooded animals. There are many types of E.coli bacteria, most of which are harmless.
However, some types of E.coli produce toxins (poisons) that can cause gastroenteritis (gastro). One of these types of E.coli is known as ‘shiga toxin-producing E.coli’ or STEC.
This type of E.coli may also be called VTEC (verotoxin-producing E.coli) or EHEC (enterohaemorrhagic E.coli).
Symptoms of STEC infection
The symptoms of STEC infection can include:
- diarrhoea that may have blood in it
- abdominal pain
- nausea and vomiting
- mild fever.
It usually takes between two and eight days after the bacteria are taken in by mouth for the first symptoms to appear. Symptoms can last five to 10 days. They can be severe in children, the elderly and people with reduced immunity.
In children aged less than five years, infection may lead to haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS).
Causes of STEC infection
STEC are found in the gut of cattle. They can also be present in the gut of humans without causing illness. Humans can be infected with STEC as a result of:
- eating undercooked beef, in particular ground or minced beef
- drinking raw (unpasteurised) milk
- close contact with a person who has the bacteria in their faeces
- drinking contaminated water
- swimming or playing in contaminated water
- contact with farm animals.
Other known sources of the bacteria have included lettuce, spinach, sprouts, salami and fruit juices.
Diagnosis of STEC infection
To find out if you have a STEC infection, your doctor will ask you for a stool (faeces or poo) sample for testing. If the results show that you have STEC, the doctor will be able to provide advice and appropriate treatment. In Victoria, they will notify the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services.
Prevention of STEC infection
To help prevent infection with STEC:
- Be sure to wash your hands properly, especially after handling raw meat.
- Do not handle raw and cooked foods with the same implements (such as tongs, knives and cutting boards), unless they have been washed thoroughly between uses.
- Do not drink unpasteurised milk.
- Thoroughly cook raw meat.
- Do not eat minced meat if any part of the meat is still pink.
- Prevent children from eating meat products, such as salami, which have not been pasteurised or cooked.
- Do not drink untreated water that comes directly from lakes or rivers as it may be contaminated.
- Thoroughly wash hands after handling animals.
- Thoroughly wash all fruit, vegetables and salad ingredients intended to be eaten raw.
To prevent the spread of STEC infection:
- Keep children home from school, childcare or kindergarten until 24 hours after diarrhoea has ceased.
- If you are a food handler, childcare worker or healthcare worker, do not work until 48 hours after diarrhoea has ceased.
- Avoid preparing food for others while you are unwell.
- Clean bathrooms and other surfaces regularly.
Where to get help
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Department of Health and Human Services - RHP&R - Health Protection - Communicable Disease Prevention and Control Unit
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