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Cookie Dough Recall Q&A: Understanding E. Coli

Nestle USA is voluntarily recallingall of their Toll House refrigerated cookie dough products today after reports of a possible E. coli outbreak linked to the ingestion of raw cookie dough. The FDA and the CDC are investigating reports of 66 cases of illness across 28 states related to these Toll House products. Now, I'm sure we've all indulged in a handful of raw cookie dough at one point or another, but this recall is just another reminder (aside from the WARNING printed on the label) - that it's not safe to eat until it's heated!

Because of the popularity of these products, we've been getting a lot of questions about E. coli, its symptoms and how to prevent infection. Here's a quick Q&A to help clear things up for you.

What is E. coli? E. coli is a kind of bacterium called Escherichia colithat lives in the digestive tracts of animals and humans. There are many different strains of E. coli bacteria, and for the most part, many of them are harmless. But some strains can cause extreme abdominal discomfort, diarrhea, bloody stools and vomiting - while others strains can lead to urinary tract infections, respiratory illnesses, anemia, kidney failure and even death.

Where does it come from? Contaminated food: The most common way people in the U.S. become infected with E. coli is from eating contaminated food. In fact, the CDC estimates that 85 percent of E. coli infections come from ingesting infected food or water. Because E. coli bacteria live in the intestines of healthy animals, like cows, it is possible for processed meats to become contaminated. If the contaminated meat is not heated to 160 degF during preparation, the bacteria can survive and infect you when you eat it. Raw foods can also carry E. coli. It's important to check the labels and make sure that all your dairy products are pasteurized, or heated to kill off bacteria before hitting the store shelves. Raw fruits and vegetables can become contaminated if they come in contact with manure or animal feces.

Contaminated water: While not as common as foodborne E. coli infections, people can also become ill from drinking or ingesting contaminated water that has not been properly treated. And sometimes, accidentally swallowing lake or pool water that has come in contact with human or animal feces can put you at risk for becoming infected with E. coli.

Person-to-person: E. coli can also be spread from person-to-person if someone does not wash their hands thoroughly after a bowel movement. This is not as common, but it's especially important for people who work in the restaurant/food preparation industry because they can spread the bacteria from their hands to other objects - including your dinner! I know it's not a nice thought, but it happens more often than you think, so it sounds simple, but washing your hands is one of the easiest ways to prevent all kinds of infections.

What are the symptoms? Symptoms usually start 3-4 days after exposure to the bacteria and can include:

  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloody stools
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Mild fever
  • Dehydration
Who is at risk? People of all ages can become infected with E. coli, but the risk for serious complications is higher for young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems or underlying health problems.

How is it treated?E. coli infections will usually clear on their own in about a week in a healthy person and treatment involves resting and staying hydrated. Often, people just assume they have a stomach bug and don't go to the doctor, so they don't know that E. coli caused their illness, but a simple stool test can diagnose the condition. As a rule of thumb, you should contact your physician any time there is blood in your stool.

  • How can E. coli infection be prevented? Wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom and before preparing or eating food;
  • Cook meats thoroughly at a temperature of at least 160 degF/70 degC (use a thermometer to test the meat if you're not sure);
  • Do not drink raw milk, unpasteurized dairy products, and unpasteurized juices (like fresh apple cider);
  • Avoid swallowing water when swimming or playing in lakes, ponds, streams or swimming pools;
  • When traveling abroad to countries that may have unsafe drinking water, don't drink tap water or get ice in your drinks. Also, avoid raw fruits and vegetables, except those with skin that you can peel yourself;
  • Wash your hands often, and always wash them after you use the bathroom or change diapers - it's the best way to prevent infection with any bacteria.

Dr. Cynara Coomer is an assistant professor of surgery specializing in breast health and breast cancer surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. She is a FOX News Health contributor providing medical expertise on a variety of topics in cancer research with a focus on women's health, breast diseases and tips for healthy breasts at any age.