What Is E. Coli and How Do I Protect Myself From It?

The way E. Coli is spread is pretty gross.

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At least 17 E. coli cases have been reported in recent weeks, with the outbreak affecting seven states so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while many illnesses caused by these bacteria are tough to avoid, there are a few ways you can safeguard yourself and your family.

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But first, what is E. Coli?

E. coli bacteria are found in the environment, foods, and intestines of people and animals, according to the CDC. Some strains are totally harmless, but others can make you super sick. Common symptoms include diarrhea (often bloody), severe stomach cramps, and vomiting. Symptoms typically appear within 3 to 4 days of ingesting the bacteria. Most people recover within 5 to 7 days.

And how's E. Coli spread?

Brace yourself: it's gross. E. Coli is typically spread through tiny amounts of feces, either human or animal, that's gotten into your food. According to the CDC, this happens more often than you'd guess—you're probably eating invisible bits of poop all the time without realizing it. They just don't always make you sick.

The foods most at risk for E. Coli contamination include unpasteurized (raw) milk, unpasteurized apple cider, and soft cheeses made from raw milk.

How can I protect myself from E. Coli?

It can be really tough to protect against E. Coli contamination in food, but there are a few things that are within your control.

Wash your hands

You know you should scrub up frequently, but take extra care after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, or touching animals.

Cook your ground beef all the way through

Always use a thermometer to ensure the inside reaches 160 degrees.

Avoid unpasteurized juices and dairy

Like raw milk or apple cider.

Arrange your fridge for safety

Don't store meat near produce—if you do, you risk the raw meat leaking onto your fruits and veggies.

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