To diagnose illness caused by E. coli infection, your doctor sends a sample of your stool to a laboratory to test for the presence of E. coli bacteria. The bacteria may be cultured to confirm the diagnosis and identify specific toxins, such as those produced by E. coli O157:H7.
For illness caused by E. coli, no current treatments can cure the infection, relieve symptoms or prevent complications. For most people, treatment includes:
- Fluids to help prevent dehydration and fatigue
Avoid taking an anti-diarrheal medication — this slows your digestive system down, preventing your body from getting rid of the toxins. Antibiotics generally aren't recommended because they can increase the risk of serious complications and they don't appear to help treat the infection.
If you have a serious E. coli infection that has caused a life-threatening form of kidney failure (hemolytic uremic syndrome), you'll be hospitalized. Treatment includes IV fluids, blood transfusions and kidney dialysis.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Follow these tips to prevent dehydration and reduce symptoms while you recover:
- Drink clear liquids. Drink plenty of clear liquids, including water, clear sodas and broths, gelatin, and juices. Avoid apple and pear juices, caffeine, and alcohol.
- Avoid certain foods. Dairy products, fatty foods, high-fiber foods or highly seasoned foods can make symptoms worse.
- Eat meals. When you start feeling better, you can return to your normal diet.
Preparing for your appointment
Most people don't seek medical attention for E. coli infections. If your symptoms are particularly severe, you may want to visit your primary care doctor or seek immediate care.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment and know what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
- Write down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
- Write down key personal information, including any recent life changes or international travel.
- Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements that you're taking.
- Ask a family member or friend to come with you, if possible. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember all of the information provided to you during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot.
- Write down questions to ask your doctor.
For an E. coli infection, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What's the most likely cause of my symptoms?
- What kinds of tests do I need?
- What treatments are available, and which do you recommend?
- Will there be any lasting effects from this illness?
- How can I prevent this from happening again?
- Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can take home with me? What websites do you recommend visiting?
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor may ask:
- When did your symptoms begin?
- How often are you having diarrhea?
- Are you vomiting? If so, how often?
- Does your vomit or diarrhea contain bile, mucus or blood?
- Have you had a fever? If so, how high?
- Are you also having abdominal cramps?
- Have you recently traveled outside the country?
- Does anyone else in your household have the same symptoms?
What you can do in the meantime
If you or your child has an E. coli infection, it may be tempting to use an anti-diarrheal medication, but don't. Diarrhea is one way the body rids itself of toxins. Preventing diarrhea slows that process down.
Take small sips of fluid as tolerated to try to stay hydrated.