Don’t let E. coli ruin your child’s fun this summer!

With the May long weekend coming up, the  Montreal Children’s Hospital offers tips for moms and dads  to prevent hamburger disease and other foodborne illnesses

The May long weekend is just around the corner, marking the kick-off to summer. Although gatherings outside of your family bubble are not yet permitted, grills will be red-hot, and burgers will be sizzling: it is BBQ season! This is also the time of the year when, thanks to the warmer weather, E. coli infections start to rise. Here are easy steps parents can take to prevent family members, particularly young children, from getting seriously sick.

What is E. coli?
E. coli is a large and diverse group of bacteria. Although most strains of E. coli are harmless, others produce toxins that can make people, particularly young children, very sick.

What causes an E. coli outbreak?
The toxin-producing form of E. coli is shed in the stool of cattle, sheep, deer and other farm animals. Sometimes during the butchering process, a bad strain of E. coli gets on the outside surface of the meat. In the case of a whole cut of meat such as steak or roast, this isn’t too serious because the bad bacteria are killed during the cooking process. However, in the case of ground beef, the bad bacteria spread throughout the meat. When you cook your burgers on the BBQ, the outside surface might be well cooked, but the multiple surfaces inside the patty, might not reach the right temperature, and therefore be allowing the bad bacteria to survive. It is, for this reason, you must ensure your burgers and other favourite ground beef meals are well cooked.

Who is most at risk?
While anyone who eats contaminated food may get bloody diarrhea or watery diarrhea, it is young children, under the age of 5 years, who are most at risk of the complications of an E. coli infection. These complications include low blood counts and kidney failure, which can lead to hospitalization, need for dialysis, and rarely death. These complications can happen in up to 15% of infections in young children versus only 1-5% in people over the age of five.

What are the symptoms?
There are a variety of symptoms associated with an E. coli infection. The following symptoms can appear within one to eight days after ingestion of a bad strain of E. coli, most commonly after 3-4 days:

  • bloody diarrhea or watery diarrhea
  • severe stomach cramps
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • headache
  • mild fever

Most children and adults will be unwell for about five to 10 days and improve without requiring any special treatment other than rest, drinking enough fluids to prevent becoming dehydrated. However, in severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary. Antibiotics should be avoided.

If there is blood in the stool, you should see your doctor, and the stool should be tested for E. coli, and other bacteria. If this is positive for the toxin of E. coli, then certain blood tests should be done within a week of improvement to be certain that there are no complications.

How to prevent an E. coli infection?
The good news is moms and dads can take steps to reduce the risk of infection.

  • Enjoy your burgers well done. Use a thermometer to make sure the temperature at the centre of your burger reaches 71 C (160 F),
  • Do NOT put your well-cooked hamburgers onto the unclean plate used for the raw meat.

To prevent the risk of E. coli and other foodborne microbes or pathogens from contaminating your food, take these additional precautions:

  • Always wash your hands after using the bathroom and before cooking and eating
  • Wash fruits and vegetables (especially leafy greens) with water. Although this may not get rid of all E. coli or other bacteria, it will reduce the number of bacteria. Even if a bag of salad claims to be pre-washed, wash it again
  • Avoid swallowing water from lakes or pools
  • Avoid cross-contamination by washing utensils, cutting boards and counters between each stage of food preparation. If you use a knife or cutting board to slice meat, make sure to clean it well before using it to chop your vegetables. Same idea, if you use a bowl to mix the ingredients for your hamburgers, wash the bowl before using it for your tossed salad. This will prevent the bacteria from spreading from food to food and surface to surface
  • Avoid unpasteurized dairy products or juice

The Montreal Children's Hospital wishes you a safe summer!