Is E. coli Contagious?

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Early Symptoms of E. Coli Infection

Early symptoms of E. coli O157:H7 infection usually appear about three to five days after a person ingests the bacteria. Symptoms of E. coli infection are

  • nausea,
  • vomiting,
  • stomach cramps, and
  • diarrhea that often is bloody.

What is E. coli?

E. coli is a species of bacteria that are gram-stain negative and rod shaped. E. coli commonly live in the intestines of healthy individuals. The complete scientific name of the bacteria is termed Escherichia coli. Most E. coli are harmless to humans, but a few strains of the bacteria can cause symptoms of severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, dehydration and if not treated, can lead to shock and death. E. coli can cause urinary tract infections, meningitis, pneumonia, abdominal infections as well as sinusitis, osteomyelitis, and sepsis.

Is E. coli contagious?

Some E. coli bacteria are contagious while others are not, depending on the E. coli strain and/or the infection type. Some strains that cause gastrointestinal problems (enteropathogenic E. coli) can be transmitted person-to-person, usually by the oral/fecal route, and even indirectly by contaminated food or water. The E. coli organisms can survive on contaminated utensils and other household items for short time periods. Foods that are sources for diarrhea-causing E. coli include:

  • contaminated meat (raw or undercooked),
  • unpasteurized milk, and
  • raw fruits and vegetables.

In addition, water can be contaminated with E. coli. This can be the source of infection through swimming, drinking, consuming ice and eating any food washed with or exposed to contaminated water.

Other E coli strains that may cause urinary tract infections (UTIs), for example, are not considered to be contagious. Casual contact (shaking hands, kissing) will not usually transmit E. coli person to person. However, some strains of E. coli, including the diarrhea-causing enteropathogenic strains, can be contagious.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/2/2016

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