E. Coli

E. Coli (Escherichia Coli)

Escherichia coli, or E. coli for short, is a type of bacteria that lives in the intestines of people and animals. Most forms of E. coli are not harmful, but some types can make you sick. One of the most common forms of E. coli that can cause disease is "Shiga Toxin-producing" E. coli, or STEC.

  • Anyone can get E. coli, but very young children and the elderly are most likely to get sick and have severe symptoms.
  • Most people get better in 5 to 7 days without treatment. Contact your healthcare provider if your symptoms are severe, or if they last more than 2 to 3 days.
  • You can get E. coli many ways, but the most common way is by eating or drinking contaminated food or drinks that haven’t been fully cooked or pasteurized.
  • If you or a family member gets sick with E. coli, you can spread the infection to others in your home, at work, or at school or daycare.
  • We investigate cases of illness that are linked to eating in restaurants or other food establishments in Whatcom County. If you have symptoms of foodborne illness after eating out, email us or call 360-778-6000 to let us know.


People usually start to have symptoms 3 to 4 days after accidentally drinking or eating something contaminated with E. coli. Symptoms include:

  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea (often bloody)
  • Vomiting
  • Mild fever (less than 101˚F)

You should see your healthcare provider right away if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Diarrhea that lasts for more than 3 days.
  • High fever.
  • Blood in your stool (poop)
  • Vomiting so much that you can’t keep liquids down.

There are many bacteria and viruses that can cause similar symptoms and illness, like Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Norovirus. If you have been having symptoms for more than 48 to 72 hours you should see a doctor and submit a stool sample for testing.

How It’s Spread

E. coli infection starts when you accidentally eat or drink invisible amounts of human or animal feces (poop). This can happen when you:

  • Eat contaminated foods, like undercooked or raw beef.
  • Drink raw (unpasteurized) milk that is contaminated during milking.
  • Drink untreated water.
  • Have contact with an infected person or animal.


Take these steps to help prevent E. coli infection:

  • Always wash your hands well before, during, and after preparing and eating food.
  • Keep raw meats away from other foods. Use separate cutting boards for raw meats and fresh produce.
  • Clean all cutting boards, counter tops, and utensils with soap and hot water after preparing raw meat.
  • Cook all ground beef thoroughly to a temperature of at least 160°F.
  • Avoid raw milk products. Only drink milk products that have been pasteurized (heated to kill bacteria).
  • Do not drink untreated water from streams, rivers, ponds, or lakes.
  • Wash your hands after contact with animals or their environments (farms, petting zoos, fairs, backyard chickens).
  • If you have diarrhea don’t swim in pools or lakes, and keep children in diapers out of pools and lakes too.

If you work in food handling, healthcare, or child care and you have nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea:

Do not return to work until at least 24 hours after your symptoms have gone away. Illnesses with vomiting and diarrhea can spread easily from one person to another through food contaminated by a sick person or by touching shared surfaces like bathrooms and work spaces.


Antibiotics aren’t used to treat E. coli infection because they may increase your risk of complications. There is no real treatment for E. coli; instead, your healthcare provider will make sure that you’re getting enough fluids and don’t have any more serious symptoms.

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