Everything You Need To Know About The Latest E. Coli Outbreak

Photo: A. Astes / Alamy Stock Photo.
Update: The F.D.A just announced that, after analyzing a sample, the agency wasn't able to definitively trace the E. coli outbreak back to the voluntarily recalled Taylor Farms celery. So the actual source remains unknown.

This article was originally published on December 2, 2015.

In the past few weeks, Escheria coli (E. coli) has been responsible for several attention-grabbing recalls. First, there was Chipotle. Then, there was Costco's chicken salad. And today, it's hit Starbucks' turkey panini. That might mean that you'll need to make some back-up lunch plans — but it doesn't mean you need to freak out.

It turns out that E. coli is pretty much everywhere — including the inside of your intestines. But there are some easy things you can do to minimize your risk for infection. Here's what you need to know to get through this trying time. First step: Don't panic.
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Photo: Courtesy of Janice Haney Carr/CDC.
What is E. coli?

E. coli is a little rod-shaped bacteria. It's actually kind of cute (see?). And we naturally have some strains of E. coli in our guts — it's just normal. But other kinds of E. coli can cause problems. Issues can occur when the bacteria shows up in our food, whether we're eating contaminated foods or our meal has been prepared by someone who was less than diligent about washing his or her hands after using the bathroom. As the CDC says, "Almost everyone has some risk of infection."
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Photo: A. Astes / Alamy Stock Photo.
What happens when you're infected?

You won't develop your symptoms until three or four days after being exposed, but the CDC says it may even take up to 10 days before you feel sick. Your exact symptoms may vary, but most people have diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps, and vomiting. Basically, your classic food poisoning symptoms. Most people get better in a few days.

If your symptoms don't go away after five days, your fever hits 101 degrees Fahrenheit, or you aren't able to keep fluids down, check in with your doctor.

In other rare cases, E. coli infections can go on to cause a serious kidney condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). If you've already got an E. coli infection that isn't going away and notice yourself peeing less often, feeling fatigued, and losing the color in your cheeks, that may be a sign that your illness has gotten more severe. Still, according to the CDC, most people with HUS recover after a few weeks.
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Photo: Courtesy of Janice Haney Carr/CDC.
How serious is this outbreak?

Just a quick glance through the CDC's list of past E. coli outbreaks will let you know that there's an outbreak of some kind pretty much every year. So this is definitely not new. But this year's outbreaks are hitting us in more popular restaurants and stores than usual, including the aforementioned Costco and Starbucks, as well as Chipotle. I mean, Chipotle? Come on.

At this point, though, all of those outbreaks have been traced back to one source of celery: Taylor Farms in California. The celery itself has already been recalled, so now we're seeing other companies recall products that are made with that celery.

And the E. coli strain currently in question in the Costco and Starbucks cases — O157:H7 — is a particularly nasty one. But it's also the one most often responsible for these large-scale recalls, so this isn't so out of the ordinary. Infections with this strain are more likely to send you to the hospital than other illness-causing bacteria, such as salmonella. And according to the CDC, there are have only been 19 cases and only five people have been hospitalized due to the current outbreak. Although it has spread to seven states, there haven't been any deaths.
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Photo: Geoffrey Kidd / Alamy Stock Photo.
How do I avoid getting infected?

Well, the first thing to remember is that you're never going to completely erase your risk for E. coli infection. But there are some simple things you can do to reduce your risk at home. For instance, take special care with certain foods that are known to have more of a risk of carrying E. coli. That means making sure your burgers are fully cooked, your fresh produce fully washed, and your milk and juices are pasteurized (drink that $10 bottle of green stuff at your own risk).

Of course, that also means you should wash your hands often and make sure you're using separate utensils and kitchen supplies (watch those cutting boards) for your raw and cooked meats or veggies.

But if you do happen to get an E. coli infection now or in the future, know that you are definitely not on your own. The CDC estimates that there are about 265,000 E. coli infections in the US every year, so you're in plenty of good company. Stay calm, drink lots of water, and take a break from the celery for a bit.