People who have hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, have hemolytic anemia (not enough red blood cells), thrombocytopenia (not enough platelets) and renal failure (kidney failure). Most cases of HUS happen after someone has become infected with E. coli. E. coli is short for Escherichia coli -- a common germ that people and many animals normally have in their digestive tract. Certain strains of E. coli can cause severe abdominal cramps and bloody diarrhea or other problems. These strains of E. coli produce a poison that damages the lining of blood vessels. As red blood cells travel through the damaged vessels, they are often destroyed.
Anyone can get HUS, but children and older adults are more likely to get it.
Symptoms of HUS usually appear 5 to 10 days after the diarrhea starts. You should call your doctor if you notice any of the following symptoms:
Most cases of HUS occur after an E. coli infection. You can catch E. coli infection by doing one of the following:
Healthy beef and dairy cattle may carry E. coli in their intestines. When the animals are slaughtered, the meat can get contaminated with these bacteria. When the meat is ground, the E. coli bacteria get mixed throughout the meat.
Ponds and lakes can also become contaminated with E coli. Sometimes contaminated water is unknowingly used to irrigate crops.
The most common way to get infected with E. coli is to eat undercooked ground beef. You can be infected with E. coli if you don't use a high enough temperature to cook your beef, or if you don't cook it long enough. When you eat undercooked beef, the bacteria go into your stomach and intestines.
The bacteria can also be passed from person to person in day care centers and nursing homes. If you have this infection and don't wash your hands well with soap after going to the bathroom, you can give the bacteria to other people when you touch things, especially food.
Most people who become infected with E. coli won't get HUS. If you do, you will need to go to the hospital so that your doctor can watch your kidney function and make sure you keep enough fluid in your body. If you have hemolytic anemia, you may need to have a red blood cell transfusion. If you have thrombocytopenia, you may need a platelet transfusion. If you have kidney failure, you may need dialysis. During dialysis, a machine is used to filter waste products from the blood. Dialysis is only needed in the most severe cases of HUS.
Most people who are diagnosed with HUS go on to make a full recovery.
To lower your risk of being infected with E. coli, follow these rules:
Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome: An Emerging Health Risk by S Razzaq, M.D. (American Family Physician September 15, 2006, http://www.aafp.org/afp/20060915/991.html)
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff