Campylobacter bacteria contribute to 1.3 million illnesses each year in the United States. The infection is most commonly spread through the consumption of undercooked poultry, but may also stem from contaminated water or unpasteurized milk. It results in diarrhea, cramping, and fever. Although symptoms typically subside without medical intervention, Campylobacter infection can spread to the bloodstream and be life-threatening.

What are the symptoms of Campylobacter infection?

The most common symptom of Campylobacter infection is diarrhea. The diarrhea may contain blood and be accompanied by abdominal cramps and fever, nausea, and vomiting. Although some people infected by the bacteria show no symptoms at all, most typically begin showing symptoms two to five days after consuming the bacteria. On average, symptoms of Campylobacter infection persist for one week before ceasing on their own.


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How is food contaminated with Campylobacter?

Campylobacter is frequently present in the intestines, liver, and giblets of animals such as chickens, cows, and birds. These animals may show no signs of the infection, and the bacteria can spread to other parts of the animal upon slaughter. One study found Campylobacter on as much as 33% of raw chicken purchased from retailers. Milk, fruits, vegetables, and water are also susceptible to Campylobacter through contact with animals and their fecal matter.


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How do people become infected with Campylobacter?

Campylobacter originates in farm animals but spreads easily to humans. The most frequent source of the infection is the consumption of raw or undercooked poultry. If raw chicken touches other foods in the kitchen, those foods are susceptible to the bacteria as well. Milk might contain Campylobacter if the producing cow's udders were infected. Water and other types of meat may also carry the bacteria. In the U.S., one out of five Campylobacter infections appears to be a result of international travel.


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What is the treatment for Campylobacter infection?

Medical testing will confirm the presence of Campylobacter in the stool, tissues, or fluids of the body. Most people with Campylobacter infection recover within a week without medical intervention or treatment. Diarrhea dehydrates the body, so be sure to drink lots of fluids while you are experiencing this symptom. If the infection becomes serious or you are already at a higher risk for disease, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic.


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How can I prevent Campylobacter infection?

The most effective way to prevent Campylobacter infection is to ensure chicken and poultry are cooked fully through to 165 degrees. Avoid cross-contamination by keeping raw poultry separate from other foods and designating a specific cutting board for raw poultry only. Wash your hands before, during, and after preparing food and each time you handle raw poultry. Drink pasteurized milk and avoid untreated water.


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How serious is Campylobacter infection?

Most cases of Campylobacter infection are not serious and subside in two to ten days. Elimination of the bacteria through the stool may continue for a number of weeks, which means the original carrier can still contaminate other people and should take care to wash his or her hands frequently. In a small number of instances, the infection may lead to a gallbladder infection, irritable bowel syndrome, or arthritis.  


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What is GBS?

One out of every 1,000 cases of Campylobacter infection can lead to Guillain-Barré Syndrome or GBS, a rare disorder that causes the body to attack its own nerves, leading to muscle weakness and potential paralysis. GBS is temporary but may last up to two years and could leave the nerves permanently damaged. Campylobacter is the root cause of as many as 40% of GBS cases in the United States.


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When should you contact a doctor?

Campylobacter infection is relatively mild. If you experience diarhhea, you may monitor it for a few days before determining whether to contact your doctor. If you are experiencing severe dehydration or a fever of 102 degrees or higher, contact your doctor. People with a weakened immune system are more susceptible to the infection and its symptoms and should seek medical attention upon noticing the first symptoms.


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Are there concerns regarding antibiotics?

Some types of infections are resistant to antibiotics, making them harder to treat and potentially increasing the severity of the infection. People with severe cases of Campylobacter infection are treated with antibiotics. Doctors have noted an increase in the number of Campylobacter cases resistant to certain types of antibiotics. Travel outside the United States increases the risk of developing a Campylobacter infection that is resistant to some antibiotics. The CDC has launched several measures to lessen the number of cases of such Campylobacter infections.


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What is the government's response to Campylobacter infection?

Campylobacter infections are on the rise, with more cases reported each year. The CDC is working to track these cases and identify the sources of contaminated food. The data collected by these governmental agencies can be used to inform both the public and private sectors, allowing for transparency and advancement toward eradication of the infection.


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