What Is Campylobacter Infection?

When people worry about eating undercooked chicken, they usually focus on getting sick from salmonella bacteria. But another common type of bacteria called campylobacter can also make you ill if you eat poultry that isn’t fully cooked.

Like a salmonella infection, campylobacteriosis can cause diarrhea and sometimes other serious complications.

Infants and children have a greater chance than adults for campylobacter infection, but it can strike anyone at any age. Males are also more likely than females to become infected. It’s more common in summer than winter.

About 1.3 million people are infected in the United States every year, and that doesn’t include the many people who never report their symptoms or become officially diagnosed.

Causes

Campylobacter bacteria can get into your system if you eat undercooked poultry or you eat food that has touched raw or undercooked poultry.

The bacteria usually live in the digestive systems of animals, including poultry and cattle. Unpasteurized milk can also have campylobacter bacteria.

Campylobacteriosis usually develops in isolated cases. Sometimes, though, there can be an outbreak when several people have the same infection.

In developing countries, the bacteria can be found in water and sewage systems.

Symptoms

The infection usually lasts about a week. If you’ve been infected, symptoms start within a couple of days of consuming the bacteria.

The most common symptom is diarrhea. The stool may have blood in it. You may also be sick to your stomach and vomit.

Other signs of infection include:

Some people never get any symptoms. When you have a weakened immune system, the bacteria can cause a very serious infection of your bloodstream.

When to Call a Doctor

If you have a weakened immune system, see your doctor soon after diarrhea and other symptoms appear. Your immune system can be weakened by an infection, such as HIV, or by medications to treat cancer, for example.

If you’re generally in good health and you get a bout of diarrhea, you may wait a couple of days. Treat it as you would any illness that causes diarrhea.

If you feel very sick, which can happen in serious cases, then see your doctor sooner. Some of the symptoms to watch for include:

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Tests and Diagnosis

Diarrhea and vomiting are common campylobacteriosis symptoms, but they can also be symptoms of many other illnesses. This is true for bloody stools, too.

To make an official diagnosis, your doctor may ask for a stool sample, which will be sent to a lab.

Someone at your doctor’s office will give you a special container in which to collect the sample. It can take several days to get the results.

In rare cases, a doctor may order a blood test, but these results take even longer -- up to 2 weeks.

Treatment

Most people get over the infection without medicine or special treatments. You should drink lots of fluids while you have diarrhea.

Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, don’t take anything to prevent vomiting and diarrhea. That’s your body’s way of getting rid of the infection.

If your immune system is weak, your doctor might prescribe medicine to fight the infection.

Doctors will often first try levofloxacin (Levaquin). If you can’t take it for some other reasons, they may prescribe one of these common antibiotics that are used to treat several types of infections:

Possible Complications

Usually, the infection clears up within 2 to 10 days. If left untreated, campylobacteriosis may lead to serious consequences for a very small number of people.

Some problems can happen early on. One example is a gallbladder infection (cholecystitis).

There can also be complications from the later stages of the infection, too, though serious long-term problems are unusual.

The infection is associated with arthritis in rare cases. It may also lead to Guillain-Barre syndrome. It’s a disorder in which your immune system attacks nerves in your body. You can be partially paralyzed and be in the hospital for weeks.

Prevention

The most effective way to avoid campylobacteriosis is to cook poultry to at least 165 F. The meat should be white, not pink. You should never eat chicken that looks undercooked.

Heating foods and pasteurizing dairy products are the only ways of knocking out the bacteria in foods that have been contaminated.

Here are some other tips:

  • Wash your hands before cooking and after touching raw poultry or meat.
  • Keep uncooked meat and poultry away from other foods, such as vegetables, by using separate cutting boards, utensils, and cooking surfaces.
  • Wash your hands after touching a pet or pet feces.
  • Make sure your child or anyone with diarrhea washes his or her hands well.

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What About Work or School?

To help reduce the spread of campylobacteriosis, try to avoid school or work or any public places until your stool is firm.

If you still have diarrhea, stay home and try to stay hydrated if possible. A relapse is possible, but not likely.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on December 20, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “What is campylobacteriosis?”

World Health Organization: “Campylobacter.”

Wisconsin Division of Public Health: “Campylobacteriosis.”

Vermont Department of Health, “Campylobacter”

Antimicrobe.org: “Camylobacter species.”

SA Health (Government of South Australia): “Campylobacter infection.”

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