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E-Coli Infection: Not Just From Food

E coli and other gram-negative bacilli, such as strains of Klebsiella, Enterobacter, Proteus, and Pseudomonas, can also cause non–food-related illnesses, including blood infections (septicemia), inflammation of the covering of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) in newborn children, and urinary tract infections in children and adults of all ages.

In most newborn infections, E coli or other gram-negative bacteria have usually been passed from the mother’s genital tract to the newborn during childbirth. They can also sometimes be spread through person-to-person contact with caregivers or other children.

Signs and Symptoms

A baby who develops septicemia often demonstrates signs and symptoms such as

  • Fever, including a temperature that goes up and down
  • Breathing characterized by grunting
  • Listlessness
  • Irritability
  • Lack of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • A swelled abdomen
  • Diarrhea

Meningitis in newborns with an E coli or other gram-negative infection may not cause all of the signs usually associated with an infection of the central nervous system. Signs of meningitis can include fever or an abnormally low temperature, listlessness or coma, vomiting, a bulging soft spot (the technical term for the soft spot on the head is the fontanelle), and seizures.

Signs of urinary tract infection (UTI) include pain when urinating, increased frequency of urinating, and wetting bed or clothes in a previously dry child.

When to Call Your Pediatrician

Contact your pediatrician promptly if your baby develops symptoms such as those described here.

How Is the Diagnosis made?

To diagnose these infections, your pediatrician will order tests of your baby’s blood, cerebrospinal fluid, and urine.


If your newborn has septicemia or meningitis, your doctor will first prescribe ampicillin and aminoglycosides. (Sometimes, cephalosporin drugs will be used instead of aminoglycosides.) Laboratory tests can identify the exact organism causing the infection. Treatment lasts 10 to 14 days for most cases of septicemia and at least 21 days for meningitis.

Urinary tract infections usually can be treated with oral antibiotics. If your child has a UTI, your pediatrician will order some tests to evaluate your child’s bladder and kidneys. Some tests are performed at the time of the infection, but others are done after your child recovers.

Last Updated
Immunizations & Infectious Diseases: An Informed Parent's Guide (Copyright © 2006 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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