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Escherichia coli is a common bacterium that can cause infections in people. It is usually referred to as E. coli (pronounced ee-co-lye). E. coli infections can cause food poisoning, urinary tract infections, and vaginal infections, any of which can hit you while you are pregnant and cause illnesses that are anywhere from mild to severe.
E. coli is extremely common. There are many strains of this organism and they are found all around us pretty much all the time. Most strains of E. coli do not cause problems. As a matter of fact, E. coli is a major member of the bacteria in your healthy intestinal system. In your gut, it is normal and healthy to have harmless strains of E. coli. But there are dangerous strains that can cause intestinal symptoms, including mild to very severe diarrhea and vomiting. E. coli can also cause infections of the vagina and urinary tract.
Food poisoning caused by E. coli is unfortunately common. The usual source of the types of E. coli that cause illness is contamination from either human or animal feces. E. coli infections can be caused by eating anything that has been contaminated with the bacteria, things like unwashed fruits and vegetables, meat that is raw or that hasn’t been cooked thoroughly, or unpasteurized milk or fruit juices. You can also get an E. coli infection from drinking contaminated water, such as from a well that has been contaminated by sewage. The bacterium can also lurk in lakes and ponds after a heavy rainstorm that causes run-off from a field with animals. A swimming pool that has not been properly maintained can also harbor E. coli.
You can also get it from a handshake from someone who hasn’t washed their hands properly. This is why washing your hands after you use the bathroom and before you eat is an important part of good hygiene.
This year, E. coli has been in the news because a bad strain contaminated supplies of Romaine lettuce in the United States. This contamination by a strain called E. Coli O157:H7 led to outbreaks of illness in 25 states, with 72 people needing to be hospitalized. Thirteen people developed kidney failure.
Symptoms of E. coli intestinal infections include diarrhea and intestinal cramping. In very severe cases, you may have bloody diarrhea and vomiting. You may also develop a fever. Because the diarrhea can be very severe, you can become dehydrated quickly, which can lead to problems like kidney failure.
If you develop diarrhea during pregnancy or while you are breastfeeding, you must drink plenty of fluids to replace the fluids you are losing, especially if you are breastfeeding. If the diarrhea and vomiting do not stop in a day or too, if your fever goes over 100 degrees, or if there is any sign of blood in your stool, call your obstetrician or midwife immediately.
Usually it is safe to continue breastfeeding while you have an E. coli infection, but you must wash your hands very well before you hold your baby or breastfeed. If you have diarrhea and your baby develops it, contact your pediatrician immediately.
You can help prevent food poisoning during your pregnancy and while you are breastfeeding. Wash or rinse all fresh vegetables and fruits. Cook all meat thoroughly. If you have handled raw meat, wash your hands well before you handle other foods. Wash your hands with soap after using the toilet, changing diapers, or touching farm animals. Don’t drink any unpasteurized milk, ciders, or juice.
Most cases of an E. coli intestinal infection are mild and will go away on their own. If the diarrhea and other symptoms last long than a day or two, your doctor may treat you with antibiotics that are safe to use during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
E. coli can also cause urinary tract infections and sometimes these infections will have no symptoms. Urinary tract infections are one reason your obstetrician or midwife will ask for a urine sample during your first prenatal visit and a couple of times during your pregnancy.
Symptoms of a urinary tract infection include burning or pain when you urinate, cloudy or pinkish urine, pain in the lower back or lower pelvis, and frequent urination. You may also develop a fever. If you have a urinary tract infection, your doctor or midwife will treat you with an antibiotic that is safe during pregnancy.