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Stay safe and healthy this summer by avoiding E. coli infection

Virginia offers an endless variety of activities to enjoy during the summer, including traveling, swimming, picnics and barbecues. One thing that could spoil the summer fun is an E. coli infection.  Below is some important information about how you can protect yourself and your family from E. coli.


Escherichia coli (abbreviated as E. coli) are bacteria that normally live in the intestines of humans and animals such as cows, sheep, goats and deer. Most strains of the bacteria do not cause illness in humans. However, several strains of E. coli produce a powerful toxin called Shiga toxin that can cause serious illness. These strains are known as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC).  E. coli O157:H7 is one of the most common types of STEC. 

People of any age can be infected, but young children and the elderly are more likely to develop severe illness than others.  An estimated 265,000 STEC infections occur each year in the United States. In Virginia, about 150 infections are reported each year. Infections occur throughout the year, but are more common in the spring and summer months.


Infections occur when you swallow feces (even a tiny amount) that contain STEC. The most common cause of E. coli O157:H7 infection is undercooked contaminated ground beef. Other sources include unpasteurized milk, dairy products and juice, produce (e.g., sprouts, lettuce, spinach) and drinking or swimming in feces-contaminated water. Infected foodhandlers can contaminate food if they do not wash their hands after going to the bathroom. Hands contaminated while changing diapers can spread the bacteria (e.g., in daycare facilities). Animal-to-human transmission can occur after contact with contaminated surfaces or animals (e.g., at agricultural fairs, petting zoos, farm visits).

To reduce your risk of becoming ill from E. coli infections:

  1. Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after using the toilet or changing diapers, before preparing or eating food and after contact with animals or their environments, including dirt or soil, lakes, ponds, creeks, and streams.handhygiene
  2. Cook meats thoroughly.  Ground beef should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 160°F. Using a meat thermometer is recommended because color of meat is not a reliable indicator of “doneness.” 
  3. Prevent cross contamination in food preparation areas by keeping raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods (i.e., foods that do not need further cooking or processing for safety purposes, such as fruit, vegetables and deli meats) and washing hands, counters, utensils, and plates after contact with raw meat.  
  4. Avoid raw or unpasteurized milk, dairy products, fruit juices or ciders.   Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria that cause illness.
  5. Wash any raw fruits or vegetables before eating them.  
  6. Avoid swallowing water when swimming or playing in lakes, ponds, streams, swimming pools and backyard “kiddie pools”.
  7. Persons with diarrhea should not use public swimming facilities.
  8. Clean and disinfect diapering areas, toilets and potty chairs at least daily and when soiled.

For more information about E. coli, please see:

Virginia Department of Health:  E. coli O157:H7 Fact sheet: /Epidemiology/factsheets/Escherichia.htm

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Escherichia coli O157:H7 and other Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC)

For specific questions regarding E. coli infections or to report a possible outbreak, please contact your local health department.

Last Updated: 07-30-2011

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