Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario on December 30, 2015

Sources

CDC: "E. coli," "Questions & Answers: Sickness caused by E. coli,"; "Estimates of Foodborne Illness in the United States."; Mayo Clinic: "E. coli."

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Video Transcript

MICHAEL SMITH: You've been hearing a lot about E. coli lately, but what do you really know about this bacteria?

E. coli bacteria naturally live in the intestines of animals, including humans. Most strains of it are harmless, but some kinds can make you sick and it only takes a microscopic amount.

Big outbreaks happen when we eat or drink contaminated food or water. It's gross to think about, but animal feces on a farm can sometimes make its way into our food. For instance, a crop of lettuce is washed in dirty water. It's packaged and sent to stores, then you buy it and bring it home.

But you can also get sick if you don't handle food properly. Here are some things you can do to protect yourself. Wash your utensils, cutting boards, and countertops with hot soapy water. Keep your raw meats separate from food that's ready to eat. And wash your hands after preparing food, using the toilet, changing diapers, or contact with animals.

You're most likely to get it from undercooked meat, raw vegetables, and unpasteurized milk or cheese.

Now, most people can work through an E. coli infection on their own, but if your symptoms are severe visit your doctor. For WebMD, I'm Dr. Michael Smith.