PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
Synonyms: vero cytotoxin-producing Escherichia coli (VTEC) O157, enterohaemorrhagic E. coli
Escherichia coli O157 is an uncommon cause of infectious gastroenteritis. It is important because it may be severe and sometimes fatal, particularly in infants, young children and the elderly. An important complication is haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS). E. coli strains are common in the human intestine. Most are harmless, but the vero cytotoxin-producing E. coli (VTEC) produce potent toxins (vero cytotoxins) and may cause severe disease. There are various different VTEC strains; the most important one associated with human disease is O157 (termed VTEC O157).
- VTEC infection is a relatively rare cause of gastrointestinal illness in England, with around 800 cases diagnosed annually.
- The incubation period for diarrhoeal illness caused by infection with VTEC is usually three to four days, but has been occasionally recorded as up to 14 days.
- The infectious dose of E. coli O157 appears to be very low - probably fewer than 100 organisms.
- The duration of excretion of the bacteria is usually ≤1 week. The greatest transmission is probably in the acute diarrhoeal phase. However, shedding of E. coli can occur from asymptomatic patients, and also can continue for several weeks after recovery from the illness.
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Infection can occur via the following routes:
- Contaminated foods:
- The main reservoir for E. coli O157 is the intestine of healthy cattle and other farm animals. The bacteria can survive in faeces and soil. Carcasses can become contaminated through contact with intestinal contents at slaughter.
- Mainly, inadequately cooked minced beef (often in the form of beefburgers) and milk, yoghurt and cheese (unpasteurised and contaminated post-pasteurisation). Also, sausages, venison and cold sliced meats - eg, salami.
- The UK differs from other countries in that it has had a considerable number of outbreaks associated with butchers, but very few caused by contaminated burgers.
- Outbreaks have also occurred through yoghurt, cooked meats, meat pies, cheese, dry-cured salami, contaminated vegetables (eg, sprouts, leaf lettuce or spinach), unpasteurised apple juice or cider.
- Contact with farm animals - direct spread can occur from animals to their keepers, to farmers' households, and to farm visitors.
- Person-to-person spread, particularly in households, nurseries, and infant schools.
- Via infected water - eg, faecal-contaminated lakes or streams, non-chlorinated domestic water supply, swimming pools and home paddling pools.
Clinical features and complications
Infection is associated with a broad spectrum of illness ranging from mild diarrhoea and haemorrhagic colitis to the potentially fatal haemolytic uraemic syndrome. Infection may also cause thrombotic thrombocytopaenic purpura (TTP).
There should be a high index of suspicion of VTEC infection in a child who has recently (within 21 days) visited an open farm, where there has been contact with another known or suspected case of VTEC, or who is living in an area where a suspected or confirmed outbreak of VTEC infection exists. VTEC infection should always be suspected where acute bloody diarrhoea is present, and will often be accompanied by abdominal pain, fever, pallor, petechiae and oliguria, which are markers of more severe disease. E. coli O157 can cause a range of symptoms - from asymptomatic infection or mild diarrhoea, to bloody diarrhoea (haemorrhagic colitis) and HUS. Possible clinical scenarios are:
- No symptoms or mild diarrhoea.
- Painful diarrhoea or haemorrhagic colitis:
- Typically, this starts as diarrhoea and abdominal cramps. In most cases, the diarrhoea becomes bloody after 1-3 days.
- Patients usually have no fever by the time they see a doctor.
- Note: compared to other forms of bacterial gastroenteritis, the abdominal pain is generally more severe; abdominal tenderness on examination is common and defecation tends to be painful.
- Haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS):
- A triad of acute kidney injury (oliguria and oedema), haemolytic anaemia and thrombocytopenia.
- It mainly occurs in young children and is the major cause of acute kidney injury in children in Britain.
- HUS, if it occurs, is usually diagnosed 5-13 days after the onset of diarrhoea, and thrombocytopenia is usually the first feature.
- HUS develops in up to 15% of patients infected with E. coli O157.
- Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP):
- Some patients, usually adults, develop TTP.
- This is similar to HUS, but with less renal involvement and more prominent neurological features.
- Other causes of gastroenteritis.
- Inflammatory bowel disease - ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease.
- Ischaemic colitis.
- Other causes of gastrointestinal bleeding.
- Other causes of HUS.
- Diagnosis is usually made from a stool sample. Definitive diagnosis depends on microbiological isolation and characterisation of the causative organism or the demonstration of antibodies to O157 lipopolysaccharide.
- UK NHS and public health laboratories routinely test faecal specimens from all cases of acute diarrhoeal illnesses for the presence of VTEC but any request should clearly contain the information that the patient has bloody diarrhoea and that VTEC is a possible diagnosis.
- Initial microbiological identification of a suspected VTEC takes 24-48 hours and reference laboratory confirmation takes a further 48-72 hours. Therefore, the appropriate clinical and public health management of potential VTEC disease should not be delayed whilst awaiting confirmatory microbiological results.
- Where the initial laboratory investigations have not isolated a potential VTEC but there is strong clinical suspicion of VTEC infection, further investigations must be performed by the appropriate reference laboratory to detect atypical or unusual VTEC strains - eg PCR detection of vero cytotoxin genes and other virulence markers. Serum for specific antibodies may also be sent at least 10 days after the onset.
- Blood tests: FBC (If VTEC is confirmed, a high white cell count is a marker of severity and is associated with increased likelihood of HUS, renal function and electrolytes. Falling platelet count or fragmented erythrocytes suggest HUS.
See also the separate Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome article.
Always seek urgent specialist advice whenever a child is reported to have had a single acute episode of bloody diarrhoea. Referral is an emergency where significant dehydration, acute abdominal pain, or other clinical features indicate the possible need for surgical intervention.
Any child suspected of suffering with E. coli 0157 should be assessed urgently by a paediatric specialist. Consider hospital admission if clinical features suggest E. coli O157 (eg, acute bloody diarrhoea, especially without fever or with very painful diarrhoea).
Infectious bloody diarrhoea must be reported promptly, preferably by telephone. Management is supportive:
- Early fluid resuscitation: intravenous volume expansion has been associated with renal protection in VTEC infections.
- Monitor for features of HUS (oliguria, oedema and weight gain, pallor; monitor blood count, platelets, renal function and electrolytes).
- Avoid antidiarrhoeal drugs and opioid analgesics. An association with the risk of developing HUS or neurological complications of VTEC infection has been reported with the use of antimotility agents and opioid analgesics.
- There is some evidence that antibiotic treatment may be a risk factor for HUS and there is insufficient evidence to recommend antibiotic treatment for VTEC infection. Some reports have suggested that antibiotics are contra-indicated.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs should be avoided, as they may have adverse effects on renal blood flow.
- Public health measures are important to limit outbreaks - both to identify and remove primary sources of infection but also to prevent secondary infections.
Infection control measures
- Secondary infection can occur in household settings. Any cases of diarrhoea, arising in close contacts of a diagnosed or suspected case of VTEC infection, must be investigated promptly.
- Advice should be given that good personal hygiene must be maintained by all children and adults in any household where one or more cases of VTEC infection are diagnosed or suspected.
- The use of prophylactic antibiotics is therefore not recommended.
- Any child aged 5 years or younger who has been diagnosed with a VTEC infection should not go to a school, preschool group, nursery or other childcare or child-minding group until well, and tests have shown them to no longer be infectious (two negative faecal specimens taken not less than 24 hours apart, the first to be taken not earlier than 24 hours after symptoms have ceased).
- Older children should not go to school and other social settings until they are well and 48 hours have elapsed after passing their first normal stool. In children older than 5 years who are not able to maintain good personal hygiene, the local Public Health Service should be consulted on the need to undertake microbiological testing to ensure that they are free from infection before returning to school.
- Most patients recover spontaneously by 1-2 weeks after symptoms start. Infants, children and the elderly are at greatest risk of complications.
- Risk of HUS:
- For children aged <10 years, the risk of developing HUS is about 15%.
- Overall, approximately 5% of infected patients develop HUS.
- The case fatality rate of HUS is about 10%.
- Risk of death:
- The fatality rate of E. coli O157 infections is very variable and depends on the ages of the groups affected.
- Fatality rates ranging from 1-5% have been reported, but may be much higher in some institutional outbreaks.
This mainly involves adequate hygiene to prevent contamination of food and person-to-person spread. It particularly applies to farms, abattoirs and those working in healthcare, nurseries and food provision.
Correct food preparation is also important:
- Washing of raw vegetables.
- Adequate cooking of meat, especially beefburgers.
- Pasteurisation of dairy products.
Advice to the public from Public Health England is:
- Safe food preparation:
- Fully cook minced meat products like beefburgers or meat loaf so that they are coloured all the way through, and no blood runs from them.
- Keep cooked and uncooked meats separately; store uncooked meat on the bottom shelf of the fridge to avoid dripping raw meat juices on to other food.
- Never put cooked food back on a plate which has had fresh uncooked meat on it.
- Thoroughly wash all salads and vegetables that are to be eaten raw.
- Avoid eating and drinking unpasteurised milk and dairy products.
- Boil any drinking water if you are unsure of its source.
- Do not swim in water that may be contaminated.
- Thoroughly wash hands after using the toilet, handling raw meat, before meals and after contact with animals.
- Ensure children wash their hands with warm water and soap after contact with animals, particularly while on farm visits.
- If someone has E. coli infection, wash all dirty clothes, bedding and towels in the washing machine on the hottest cycle possible. Clean toilet seats, toilet bowls, flush handles, taps and wash hand basins after use, with detergent and hot water, followed by a household disinfectant.
- If you have E. coli infection you should not prepare food for others.
- Some sources suggest that 'probiotics' (eg, certain strains of lactobacilli) may help to prevent gastrointestinal infections, because they colonise the gastrointestinal tract and theoretically prevent pathogenic organisms from infecting the gut.
Further reading & references
- Gastroenteritis; NICE CKS, August 2014 (UK access only)
- Notifiable Diseases; Public Health etc. (Scotland) Act 2008, Schedule 1, Part 1
- Health Protection Legislation Guidance 2010; Dept of Health, March 2010 (archived content)
- Notifiable diseases; Northern Ireland Regional Infection Prevention and Control Manual
- Escherichia coli (E. coli): guidance, data and analysis; Public Health England, August 2014
- Tarr PI, Gordon CA, Chandler WL; Shiga-toxin-producing Escherichia coli and haemolytic uraemic syndrome. Lancet. 2005 Mar 19-25;365(9464):1073-86.
- Lim JY, Yoon J, Hovde CJ; A brief overview of Escherichia coli O157:H7 and its plasmid O157. J Microbiol Biotechnol. 2010 Jan;20(1):5-14.
- Ferens WA, Hovde CJ; Escherichia coli O157:H7: animal reservoir and sources of human infection. Foodborne Pathog Dis. 2011 Apr;8(4):465-87. doi: 10.1089/fpd.2010.0673. Epub 2010 Nov 30.
- Pennington TH; E. coli O157 outbreaks in the United Kingdom: past, present, and future. Infect Drug Resist. 2014 Aug 19;7:211-22. doi: 10.2147/IDR.S49081. eCollection 2014.
- Rahal EA, Kazzi N, Nassar FJ, et al; Escherichia coli O157:H7-Clinical aspects and novel treatment approaches. Front Cell Infect Microbiol. 2012 Nov 15;2:138. doi: 10.3389/fcimb.2012.00138. eCollection 2012.
- The management of acute bloody diarrhoea potentially caused by vero cytotoxin-producing Escherichia coli in children; Public Health England (July 2011)
- Nguyen Y, Sperandio V; Enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) pathogenesis. Front Cell Infect Microbiol. 2012 Jul 12;2:90. doi: 10.3389/fcimb.2012.00090. eCollection 2012.
- Yates J; Traveler's diarrhea. Am Fam Physician. 2005 Jun 1;71(11):2095-100.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Colin Tidy
Dr Colin Tidy
Dr Adrian Bonsall