DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Please settle a disagreement and give some explanation on the E. coli problem. My friend says she heard that the germ is absorbed into plant roots and cannot be killed by cooking or washing. I say that any contamination is on the surface of the plant and can be removed by washing. It is transferred to the plant surface by contamination from animal feces. Who’s right? – J.S.

You are.

Escherichia (esh-ur-EEK-ee-uh) coli – E. coli – is a large bacterial family. One of the family branches lives in our colons and doesn’t cause the least bit of trouble. Other branches of the family do cause trouble. The one responsible for the food poisoning that recently occurred involving spinach belongs to a ne’er-do-well branch of the family that lives in the intestinal tract of cows. The outbreak came about when water, contaminated with cow fecal material, was used to irrigate spinach plants in the field. The bacteria remained on the spinach leaves, not in their roots and were, as you point out, on the surface of the plants. This E. coli is identified by proteins on its outer coat. The proteins are O157:H7, and they serve as a street address to identify it.

When this E. coli enters human digestive tracts, it provokes watery diarrhea that often turns bloody. Stomach cramps accompany the diarrhea, and they can be severe. Deaths have resulted from the infection.

All vegetables and fruits should be rinsed when brought home. Some advocate putting raw vegetables in cold tap water for two minutes before rinsing them to ensure the removal of all bacteria. Ground beef, another source of E. coli O157:H7, should be well done, cooked to a temperature of 160 F (71 C).

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: About two years ago, when my sister was 60, she woke up one morning totally deaf in her left ear. She had no warning signs. It happened suddenly.

Her doctors say she has no hearing in that ear, and that this is a common happening. My deepest fear is that her other ear might suffer the same thing. Being deaf in one ear has made her life difficult. Deafness in both would be very hard on her. – J.C.

To give you a definite answer, I need to know the cause of her deafness. Many disorders can bring on sudden loss of hearing, and they do so very much like you describe your sister’s loss. People go to bed with no hearing impairment but wake up the next morning deaf in one or both ears.

Viral infections of the inner ear can be the cause of sudden deafness. A majority of those infected have a complete recovery somewhat promptly. Others show improvement more slowly. About 15 percent, however, are left with permanent deafness. Your sister might be in that 15 percent group. It’s not likely that she would get a similar infection in her good ear.

Autoimmune inner-ear disease is another condition that brings on sudden hearing loss, and the loss can be in both ears. This attack by the immune system on the ear is treated with prednisone, one of the cortisone drugs. It frequently responds to such treatment. It doesn’t appear that your sister has this condition.

Interference with blood supply to the ear and tumors are other possibilities. There are more than 100 causes. If your sister’s doctors were able to pinpoint the cause of her misfortune, then a better prediction can be given regarding the chance her other ear might be similarly affected. Her story doesn’t make me think she’ll lose hearing in her good ear.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: In the past four months, I have fallen out of bed three times. My wife has put pillows on the floor in case it happens again. I don’t drink. I work out six days a week. Unfortunately, I prefer to sleep on the edge of the mattress. Any suggestions? – W.M.

If you’re certain you have no health problems and if your wife has not noticed you thrashing about during sleep, then why not put up side rails on your bed? I’m a little uncomfortable about this. If it continues, let your doctor know what’s going on.

Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Readers may also order health newsletters from

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