An Overview of Campylobacter

Learn preventative measures to avoid this infection

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Campylobacter is one of the most common sources of food poisoning in the United States, resulting in over one million cases of illness each year. Infections with the bacteria can lead to diarrhea and other gastrointestinal issues, as well as some uncommon (but potentially serious) complications like blood infections and Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

People become infected by eating or drinking things that have been contaminated with the bacteria—primarily raw or undercooked chicken. Most infections clear up on their own without issue, but severe cases can be treated with antibiotics. Nearly all cases can be prevented with proper food handling and hand-washing.

Symptoms of campylobacter
Illustration by Nusha Ashjaee, Verywell 

Symptoms

Because Campylobacter affects the digestive tract, many of the symptoms people experience are similar to those of other stomach bugs. The most common symptoms of campylobacteriosis include:

  • Watery diarrhea that is sometimes bloody
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Headache

These symptoms typically start about two to five days after you come into contact with the bacteria and will go away after about a week.

Complications

Most people who get sick with a Campylobacter infection are able to recover fine with no long-term or serious consequences. Others, however, can go on to develop complications—some of which are serious. Complications of campylobacteriosis include:

  • Dehydration (can be particularly harmful in young infants and pregnant women)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (occurs in roughly 5 to 20 percent of cases)
  • Arthritis (happens in an estimated 1 to 5 percent of Campylobacter infections)
  • Bacteremia (when the infection spreads to the bloodstream)
  • Hepatitis
  • Pancreatitis
  • Miscarriage
  • Guillain-Barré Syndrome (occurs in an estimated one in 1,000 reported cases)

Some of the more serious complications are more likely to happen in people who have weakened immune systems like those with blood disorders or AIDS, or who are receiving chemotherapy treatments.

Causes

Campylobacter infections are caused by eating or drinking something that has been contaminated with the bacteria. Most infections are the result of eating undercooked poultry or something else it came in contact with—like fruits or veggies cut on the same cutting board as raw chicken.

Other ways people become infected is through pet feces (especially dogs or cats), unpasteurized dairy products (like raw milk), untreated water, and unwashed fruits and vegetables. In very rare instances, people have become infected through blood transfusions.

Infections can happen in a wide variety of ways because the bacteria is found in a lot of places. Many different animals carry the bacteria even if they don’t appear sick—though cows and chickens are perhaps the most common sources of infections for humans.

According to an analysis done by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, one in three chickens bought in stores in the United States tests positive for Campylobacter.

The bacteria is passed along in animal feces, which can then go on to contaminate the soil, lakes, and streams that are used in all kinds of agriculture.

It also doesn’t take much of the bacteria to cause illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ingesting just a single drop of juice from contaminated raw chicken is enough for someone to become infected.

While it’s really uncommon for the bacteria to spread from one person to another, the bacteria can still be found in the stools of infected individuals weeks after symptoms have gone away. That means they could continue to pass the bacteria onto other people (often indirectly) long after they’ve fully recovered themselves.

Diagnosis

Symptoms of campylobacteriosis—like diarrhea and nausea—look a lot like other stomach bugs, and that can make it difficult to diagnose the disease just by doing a physical exam or asking a few questions.

If your doctor suspects your food poisoning is being caused by the Campylobacter bacteria, they’ll likely want to confirm the diagnose with a stool analysis, which involves taking a stool sample and sending it off to be tested in a lab for signs of the bacteria.

Treatment

Most Campylobacter infections in humans clear up just fine on their own, without the help of medications. However, doctors might recommend antibiotics in cases where people are severely ill or are at risk for some of the serious complications.

Preventing Dehydration

Even if you don’t need to take antibiotics, there are things you can do to help prevent further complications—specifically dehydration.

Dehydration is a common risk for people with food poisoning, which is why many doctors advise those with campylobacteriosis to drink extra fluids for as long as they have diarrhea and/or vomiting. Likewise, caffeinated and alcoholic drinks should be avoided, as they can make it harder for the body to hang onto fluids.

Antibiotic Medications

Antibiotics can be used to treat campylobacteriosis in people who are already experiencing severe symptoms or who are at higher risk for severe disease because of their health history, age, or medical condition. The most common antibiotics prescribed to treat Campylobacter infections are:

  • Azithromycin
  • Fluoroquinolones (like ciprofloxacin)

In recent years, Campylobacter bacteria have become increasingly resistant to fluoroquinolones, making the drugs less effective at treating campylobacteriosis. Because of this, your doctor might order additional tests to help figure out which treatment option is more appropriate.

Prevention

Campylobacter infections are overwhelmingly preventable, so long as you take a few precautions.

  • Cook chicken and other poultry thoroughly. Any time you're preparing poultry—including in casseroles and other dishes—use a cooking thermometer to verify the internal temperature of the meat is at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. If you're eating chicken at a restaurant and it looks undercooked, send it back and ask that it be cooked longer.
  • Wash hands, utensils, and surfaces. Use soap and hot water when you wash anything while cooking. This includes faucets or drawer handles you might have touched while handling raw meat.
  • Separate raw meats from fresh produce. Don't use the same cutting boards you use for raw chicken to chop veggies and store raw meats in the fridge below your produce and in a sealed container so that the juices don't drip onto other foods.
  • Avoid raw or unpasteurized milk or dairy products. It's not just raw meat you have to watch out for, raw milk can also contain the Campylobacter bacteria—which is why it's so important to stick to pasteurized dairy products. This is especially true for young children, older adults, pregnant women, and anyone with a weakened immune system.
  • Drink only treated water. Avoid drinking water from rivers, streams, or lakes, unless the water is boiled or treated. If you drink well water, make sure that the well is far away from livestock, septic tanks, manure, and anything else that could introduce bacteria into the water supply.

A Word From Verywell

If you’ve ever had food poisoning, it’s possible you’ve already had a Campylobacter infection. Campylobacteriosis can be highly unpleasant, but it typically clears up on its own after a few days, and it can easily be prevented by being extra cautious when preparing food.

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Article Sources

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  2. World Health Organization. Campylobacter. Published January 23, 2018.


  3. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Bacteria and Viruses: Campylobacter. Updated April 12, 2019.


  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Campylobacter (Campylobacteriosis) Antibiotic Resistance. Updated October 2, 2017.


  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Campylobacter (Campylobacteriosis) Prevention. Updated August 6, 2019.