How to Protect Yourself From Hamburger Disease

Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), sometimes referred to as hamburger disease, is a life-threatening condition that damages the kidneys. HUS destroys clotting cells (thrombocytopenia) and red blood cells (hemolytic anemia), which may lead to severe anemia, gastrointestinal disease, and central nervous system disease (especially in children). It may also lead to renal failure, in which the kidneys shut down. HUS usually affects children between the ages of 1 to 10 years, but can also occur in adults. HUS affects approximately two in 100,000 people.

E. coli bacteria, SEM
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Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome and E. Coli

Cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome are often attributed to the O157:H7 strain of E. coli, which is most often picked up from contaminated food or water. Infections with this strain of E.coli are nicknamed hamburger disease because the strain can be found in undercooked red meat. Other strains of E. coli may cause HUS, too.

HUS can also occur in response to other germs, pregnancy, or certain medicines. In rare cases, the cause might be undeterminable. When adults have HUS, it’s typically due to something other than foodborne illness. Your genetics may also be at play, causing atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome–an inherited condition.


Hemolytic uremic syndrome occurs after stomach flu (gastroenteritis) that may include vomiting, fever, and bloody diarrhea. Two to 14 days later, the condition begins with symptoms like:

  • Sudden paleness (pallor) and irritability
  • Restlessness, sleepiness, and seizures
  • Decreased urination
  • Bloody urine
  • Little purple bruises on the skin
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fatigue
  • Swelling of the face, hands, feet, or body

Getting a Diagnosis

HUS is diagnosed through blood, urine, and stool tests. Blood tests will look for low red blood cell and platelet counts, as well as high levels of creatinine. Urine tests will check for high levels of protein and the presence of blood. Stool tests will look for bacteria like E.coli. Healthcare providers may also do a kidney biopsy if the other tests are inconclusive.

Treating HUS

If you have HUS, you will need to be admitted to a hospital for treatment. Medical care is provided for kidney failure and may include dialysis, blood transfusions (to return the blood to normal), high blood pressure medicine, and a special diet. Intravenous immunoglobulin G (IgG) may also be given. It is not clear whether antibiotics can help treat the disease. Unfortunately, 1% to 10% of patients will not survive, and many more will develop long-term health problems.

For people with long-term kidney damage, your healthcare provider may recommend taking blood pressure medications or following a low-protein diet to decrease your risks of further kidney damage.


You can protect yourself and your children from getting foodborne illnesses by:

  • Cooking all ground beef and poultry thoroughly—send restaurant food back to the kitchen if it's not cooked to well-done—or choosing to avoid eating these meats.
  • Avoiding unpasteurized juices or milk.
  • Refrigerating ground beef and perishable food immediately after shopping.
  • Washing your hands and food utensils with hot, soapy water after handling meat and poultry.
1 Source
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pundzienė B, et al. Long-Term Follow-Up of Children with Typical Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. Medicina (Kaunas). 2015;51(3):146-151. doi:10.1016/j.medici.2015.06.004.

Additional Reading
  • Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Dec 2005. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome in Children. (2015)
  • Sims, Judith. Hemolytic-uremic syndrome. Health AtoZ. 14 Aug 2006.

By Mary Kugler, RN
Mary Kugler, RN, is a pediatric nurse whose specialty is caring for children with long-term or severe medical problems.