Is E. Coli Contagious? Causes, Prevention, and Treatment

This is how to protect yourself from E. coli bacteria that can cause uncomfortable food poisoning symptoms.

Where does Escherichia coli, known as E. coli, come from? As it turns out, most E. coli bacteria live peacefully in and around us all the time—in our guts, in the intestines of other animals, and in land and water. Some are even "good" bacteria, lending a hand in the digestion process.

But then there are the less peaceful varieties, the types of E. coli that can cause bloody diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, cramps, and more—otherwise known as food poisoning.

Sources of E. Coli

E. coli can be present in a number of sources.


Outbreaks of E. coli have been linked to raw beef and poultry. The ground meat that ends up in supermarkets and eventually on dinner tables usually combines meat from many different animals, resulting in cross-contamination. Undercooked meat products are also a source of E. coli.


The contamination network can expand from there: Raw vegetables, often those that have come into contact with runoff from cattle farms, are another common cause of E. coli infections. Spinach, lettuce, and alfalfa sprouts are common culprits.


Cattle themselves can transmit E. coli bacteria another way—through their milk. "Bacteria can be spread from the udders of a cow to infect the milk," Robert Glatter, MD, an emergency physician with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Health. From there, E. coli can go on to infect soft cheeses.

That's why it's so important to drink only pasteurized milk. The same goes for juices made from fruits and vegetables: If they haven't been pasteurized, they may still harbor E. coli passed on by the original fruits or vegetables. Pasteurization gets rid of harmful bacteria.

Raw Cookie Dough

Raw cookie dough can harbor E. coli—not from the eggs in the batter (which could have salmonella anyway) but from the flour. Flour comes from grains that grow in fields where cattle and other animals may have roamed.


Water is another potential reservoir of E. coli. "Feces from humans or animals infected with E. coli can potentially get into pools as well as the water supply," said Dr. Glatter. "People can also become infected with E. coli when a contaminated water supply has not been adequately treated with chlorine or when people accidentally swallow contaminated water while swimming in a lake or pool infected with feces."

It doesn't take much to make you sick from these sources—just a taste of food or a mouthful of water.

Is E. Coli Contagious?

You can get E. coli from either human-to-human or animal-to-human contact. It happens when you swallow invisible poop particles from humans or animals.

Some people have been known to pick up E. coli at fairs, farms, and petting zoos. Or you may pick it up from another person.

"This typically occurs when an infected person does not wash their hands well after a bowel movement," explained Dr. Glatter. "E. coli can spread from an infected person's hands to other people or even to objects."

For example, a person can get E. coli from eating food prepared by someone who did not wash their hands properly after using the restroom.

Preventing E. Coli

The good news is that even though dangerous strains of E. coli bacteria may be all around us, you don't have to get sick.

Start by ensuring ground beef and pork are cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit at the thickest point. Beef steaks and roasts should be cooked to at least 145 degrees and then allowed to rest for three minutes after being removed from the grill or stove.

"If the infected meat is not cooked to a high enough temperature, E. coli bacteria can survive and lead to infection if you consume the meat," said Dr. Glatter.

Don't rely on the color of the meat to reassure you. Use an actual food thermometer when you're cooking at home. If you're at a restaurant, it's safest to order hamburgers medium or well-done.

Only drink pasteurized dairy and juice, and wash all fruits and vegetables well.

When preparing food at home, make sure you lessen the chance of cross-contamination. Wash any utensils or surfaces that have come into contact with raw meat, and wash your hands after they touch it.

Keep raw meat away from other foods (ideally, use a separate cutting board), and defrost raw meat in the refrigerator instead of on the counter. Use different utensils and dishes for raw and cooked foods.

And then, of course, there's washing your hands, especially in the following situations:

  • Before and after handling or eating food
  • After going to the bathroom or handling diapers
  • After touching animals or anything in their environments
  • After visiting a place where animals live (such as a zoo or farm)
  • After taking off clothes or shoes that have been worn in the environment of animals
  • Before feeding your children
  • Before touching your child's mouth or anything (such as a pacifier) that will go into your child's mouth

Soap and water are always best, but if they're unavailable, an alcohol-based sanitizer (at least 60 percent alcohol) will often do in a pinch.

Anything that goes into your child's mouth, such as a pacifier or teether, should also be kept clean. Additionally, avoid swallowing water when swimming, whether in a pool or any other body of water.

E. Coli Treatment

Most people's symptoms resolve within five to 10 days, even without treatment. Fluids and rest are important. Antibiotics and antidiarrheal medications are not recommended, as they can increase the risk of complications.

People who develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a rare but serious complication that affects the kidneys, may receive medication, fluids, blood transfusions, and dialysis.

Symptoms of HUS include:

  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Unusual bleeding
  • Unexplained bruises
  • Decreased urine output

If you experience those symptoms, then it's time to call a healthcare provider. You'll also want to contact a healthcare provider if your diarrhea lasts longer than three days or is accompanied by a fever higher than 102 degrees Fahrenheit.

A Quick Review

Though there are harmless types of E. coli bacteria that can exist in the body, the infectious types may be found in sources like contaminated foods and drinks.

E. coli infections can be contagious, but the infections are treatable with fluids and rest. You can also prevent infections through actions such as proper food preparation and handwashing.

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  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Escherichia coli (E. coli).

  3. World Health Organization. E. coli.

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  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Raw milk.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Say no to raw dough.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. E. coli and food safety.

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  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevent E. coli from animals with clean hands.

  10. American Academy of Family Physicians. Hemolytic uremic syndrome.

  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. E. coli symptoms.

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