Campylobacter Infection

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on November 12, 2022
4 min read

Campylobacteriosis is an infection caused by bacteria you can get from contaminated food and water. It causes diarrhea. You might also hear it called campylobacter, campylobacter infection, or campylobacteriosis gastroenteritis.

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. Men are also more likely than women to get infected. It’s more common in summer than winter.

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

The infection usually lasts about a week. If you’ve been infected, symptoms start within a couple of days of eating the infected food. They may include: 

Some people never have symptoms. 

If your immune system is weakened by HIV or by medications to treat cancer, the bacteria can cause a serious infection in your bloodstream. See your doctor soon after diarrhea and other symptoms appear. 

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 seriously ill, then see your doctor sooner. Symptoms to watch for include:

  • Diarrhea for more than 2 days
  • Blood in your stool
  • Signs of dehydration (dark pee, dry mouth and skindizziness)
  • Severe pain in your gut or rectum
  • Fever of 102 F or higher
  • Can’t drink fluids due to nausea or vomiting

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

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

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 live in water and sewage systems.

How does campylobacteriosis contamination happen?

Poultry and cattle can carry campylobacter even if they have no symptoms. When the animals are slaughtered, bacteria can spread from the intestines to the parts people eat. Infection in a cow’s udder or contact with manure can contaminate milk. Pasteurized milk is safe to drink.

Animal waste can get into lakes and streams. The contaminated water can spread bacteria to fruits and vegetables. Washing produce with clean water helps make it safe.

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

To make a diagnosis, your doctor may ask for a stool sample, which they’ll send to a lab.

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.

Most people get over the infection without medicine or special treatments. 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.

Campylobacteriosis medications

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

Antibiotic resistance and campylobacteriosis

You might hear the term antibiotic resistance when people talk about campylobacter. Infections with antibiotic-resistant bacteria (that means they no longer respond to some of the drugs used to treat them) can be harder to treat, can last longer, and can cause more severe illness.

Usually, the infection clears up within 2-10 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. But 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.

The best way to avoid campylobacteriosis is to cook poultry to at least 165 F. The meat should be white, not pink. 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.

You can also:

  • 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 poop.
  • Make sure your child or anyone with diarrhea washes their hands well.

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. A relapse is possible, but not likely.