E.coli is a common bacterial infection which is naturally present in soil and the gut of animals and some humans.
There are many strains of E.coli but the most virulent for humans is the E.coli 0157:H7 strain, which is contagious – meaning an outbreak can spread rapidly among groups of holidaymakers unless hygiene and food preparation standards are scrupulous at a holiday hotel.
When E.coli infects the intestine, toxins can cause inflammation which makes diarrhoea bloody.
Symptoms of E.coli infection include the classic signs of a gastrointestinal infection (as well as what are known as secondary infections affecting other organs near the bowel) such as:
- Stomach cramps
- Loose stools when emptying bowels
- Urinary infection
- Kidney failure
- Infections of the genitals.
Eating infected meat which has not been properly cooked or stored – or drinking contaminated water or milk – are some of the ways in which E.coli can be transmitted to humans. Salads, unpeeled fruit and vegetables washed in contaminated water can also cause an E.coli infection.
Petting animals on holiday or not washing hands can also lead to cross contamination and an E.coli infection.
The early stages of E.coli can be treated as with any bout of sickness and diarrhoea – anti-diarrhoeal and sickness medications like loperamide and domperidone are easily available over-the-counter.
Paracetamol can also help with headaches, fever and stomach pain – and it is important to increase fluid intake and drink water after every bowel movement.
Sipping still or flat lemonade can settle stomachs and replace lost calories, but it is best to avoid caffeine drinks like tea and coffee and alcohol, which can speed up dehydration.
If symptoms grow worse or do not stabilise or improve within 24 hours, it is always best to seek medical help – especially if diarrhoea is streaked with blood or you feel very ill or in pain, or are feeling drowsy, which may be a sign of dehydration.
E.coli infection may require hospital treatment, especially in elderly patients or children or those with immunodeficient conditions like HIV/Aids or chemotherapy patients.
The best way of avoiding an E.coli infection is to be scrupulous about washing hands on holiday – and avoid eating undercooked meat products like burgers or kebabs and also steer clear of dairy products and milk which are unpasteurised.
You should see your GP in the UK when you return home if you have suffered a gastric illness on holiday, as you may need to be diagnosed for further treatment to clear the infection. This usually involves your doctor sending a stool sample away for analysis at the Public Health Laboratory – and possibly a course of antibiotics if you have contracted E.coli or another bacterial holiday infection resulting in sickness and diarrhoea.