E. Coli is short for Escherichia coli, which is a bacterium that commonly causes gastrointestinal infections in humans. In most cases, the bacteria is ingested in undercooked beef, raw milk, or putrid water while swimming. Once ingested, the bacteria are capable of being transmitted via close personal contact.
There are hundreds of different strains of Escherichia coli, but most are harmless and live in the intestines of mammals. However, type O157:H7 has been recognized as a harmful strain and is the type commonly referred to as E. Coli. Its role in digestive infections was first discovered in 1982 when a large outbreak of bloody diarrhea occurred and was traced to a shipment of contaminated hamburgers.
The symptoms of an infection include severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps, although there are occasionally no symptoms. Most infections will clear up within two weeks, although cases (mostly in the young and elderly) can result in development of hemolytic uremic syndrome, which causes the red blood cells to die and the kidneys to fail.
The bacterium's presence in a human is detected by examining the person's stool. Even if the bacterium is detected, most doctors will not prescribe antibiotics, since no evidence suggests that antibiotics have an effect on the disease. Antidiarrheal agents are not recommended since they can cause complications.
The best way to prevent yourself from becoming infected is to thoroughly cook ground beef, wash your hands, and drink only pasteurized milk. Farmers try to prevent contamination of butchered meat or milk by using disinfectants, but obviously cannot prevent everything.