Washing Your Hands After You Poop Can Prevent a Serious E. Coli Infection

You should never, ever skip washing your hands after you go.

You should always wash your hands after you poop. It protects not only you from getting sick but helps to stop the spread of germs to others. And, consider that poop—feces in medical terms—can spread germs that cause diarrhea and respiratory infections.

A 2019 study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, aimed to determine how Extended-spectrum β-lactamase-producing Escherichia coli (aka, ESBL-E. coli or drug-resistant E. coli) spreads. Drug-resistant means that many of our go-to medications for treatment are not effective against this particular bacteria.

The researchers found that not washing your hands after you poop is even more likely to spread drug-resistant E. coli than consuming raw or undercooked meat.

What Is E. Coli?

A research study explained that the specific type of E. coli lives in the intestines of humans and animals and is mostly harmless, but some strains can cause food poisoning symptoms like:

If you are infected with E. coli, most people typically start to feel sick 3–4 days after eating or drinking something that contained E. coli, but symptoms can occur up to 10 days after.

E. Coli in Food vs. E. Coli in Feces

For the study, researchers from the National Infection Service, Animal and Plant Health Agency, and other public health agencies and universities across the UK tested samples of the drug-resistant E. coli from beef, pork, and chicken and compared the results to samples from human feces, sewerage, and blood.

They found the strains that came from the human samples were similar to one another, but they were different from those found in animals. "The great majority of strains of ESBL-E. coli causing human infections aren't coming from eating chicken, or anything else in the food chain," lead study author David Livermore PhD, a professor at the University of East Anglia's Norwich Medical School said in a press release.

As for exactly how ESBL-E. coli is spread from human to human, Livermore said it takes an incredibly unpleasant fecal-oral route. "Rather—and unpalatably—the likeliest route of transmission for ESBL-E. coli is directly from human to human, with [fecal] particles from one person reaching the mouth of another," Livermore said.

The infections caused by ESBL-E. coli bacteria have been a huge problem in the UK, with over 40,000 cases of blood poisoning from E. coli each year in England alone—10% of which are from the drug-resistant ESBL-E. coli, according to Livermore.

"Infections caused by ESBL-E. coli bacteria are difficult to treat," Livermore said in the press release. "And they are becoming more common in both the community and hospitals. Mortality rates among people infected with these superbug strains are double those of people infected with strains that [are] susceptible to treatment," Livermore explained.

How Can You Prevent Illness?

There are a few ways to prevent an infection from E. coli. Try to avoid drinking raw milk, or consuming unpasteurized dairy products and juices. And, if you go swimming in a pool, lake, or pond, try to avoid swallowing the water while you swim.

Wash Your Hands

Livermore said that proper hand washing is paramount to stopping the spread of ESBL-E. coli.

"In the case of ESBL-E. coli—it's important to wash your hands after going to the toilet," Livermore said. That's especially true, Livermore explained, since ESBL-E. coli infections run rampant in elderly care homes.

As for proper hand–washing techniques: Always do it:

  • After going to the bathroom
  • After handling diapers
  • After touching animals
  • Before handling food
  • Before feeding your children

And any other time you see fit. Using soap and water is always best (for at least 20 seconds), but an alcohol-based sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol) will do if you're stuck without a sink.

Cook Meat Thoroughly

Another way to prevent illness from E. coli is to make sure the meat that you eat is fully cooked. You can use a thermometer to make sure that the meat is cooked at a safe-to-eat temperature.

This study only focused on one specific strain of E. coli—there are several other types of E. coli, and other bacteria in general. These other bacteria can come from eating undercooked meat and eating food that followed poor food prep safety practices. Avoiding these practices can help prevent illness from these strains. "We need to carry on cooking chicken well and never to alternately handle raw meat and salad," Livermore said.

A Quick Review

While most E. coli are harmless, some types of E. coli can cause illness and be spread through contaminated food or water, or through contact with animals or other people. It's important to wash your hands after using the bathroom or changing a baby's diaper and to cook meat thoroughly. If you think you may have been exposed to E. coli and are having symptoms, contact your healthcare provider.

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  1. Day MJ, Hopkins KL, Wareham DW, et al. Extended-spectrum β-lactamase-producing Escherichia coli in human-derived and foodchain-derived samples from England, Wales, and Scotland: an epidemiological surveillance and typing study. The Lancet Infectious Diseases. 2019;19(12):1325-1335. doi:10.1016/S1473-3099(19)30273-7

  2. Marin J, Clermont O, Royer G, et al. The population genomics of increased virulence and antibiotic resistance in human commensal escherichia coli over 30 years in france. Elkins CA, ed. Appl Environ Microbiol. 2022;88(15):e00664-22. doi:10.1128/aem.00664-22

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention E. coli (Escherichia coli) symptoms.

  4. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Poor toilet hygiene, not food, spreads antibiotic-resistant E. coli superbugs.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. E. coli (Escherichia coli) Questions & answers.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When & How to Wash Your Hands.

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