Campylobacter: A-to-Z Guide from Diagnosis to Treatment to Prevention

Campylobacter are bacteria that are a common cause of food poisoning and gastroenteritis. They frequently appears as the number one food poisoning culprit..

Introduction to campylobacter:

Campylobacter are everywhere! Almost any animal –wild animals, farm animals, and pets — can carry campylobacter in their stool. They are in the stool of most or all chickens, turkeys, and seagulls. They can be found on the legs of flies, inside the shells of oysters, the cages of hamsters, the litter boxes of cats, and the diapers of toddlers. And if you have a puppy with diarrhea, watch out for diarrhea in your child.

What is it?

Campylobacter are bacteria that are a common cause of food poisoning and gastroenteritis. Campylobacter frequently appear as the number one food poisoning culprit on the list kept by the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network of the CDC.

Who gets it?

Anyone can get Campylobacter, from newborns to the elderly.

The most common way to get it is by eating contaminated food, especially improperly cooked poultry, or by drinking raw (unpasteurized) milk. Newborns can get it from their mothers or from infection in the nursery.

What are the symptoms?

Most children with Campylobacter have diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fever. They often feel quite sick. It may be mistaken for appendicitis.

The stools may be bloody. In newborns, this bloody diarrhea may be the only sign – or they may become quite ill, in some cases even developing meningitis.

Some children develop temporary arthritis or other complications.

Is it contagious?

Campylobacter can be spread from person to person by the fecal-oral route.

How long does it last?

Most children develop symptoms between 1 and 7 days after being exposed. Most recover within a week, often within only a day or two.

In some children, Campylobacter infections last long enough that they are confused with ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.

How is it diagnosed?

Campylobacter is suspected based on the history and physical exam. The diagnosis is typically made by stool tests.

How is it treated?

The majority of people with Campylobacter infections get better with no antibiotics, provided they make efforts to stay well hydrated. Preventing or treating dehydration is important for all children with Campylobacter.

Antibiotics are sometimes useful in Campylobacter infections, to decrease the length and severity of the illness. Appropriate antibiotics can also make children less contagious and prevent relapse. Generally, though, antibiotics are not used for this infection unless the symptoms are particularly severe or the patient is at high-risk of severe illness (such as people with weakened immune systems).

How can it be prevented?

Thankfully, cooking kills Campylobacter.

It is best prevented by proper food handling and cooking, maintaining sanitary water supplies, and good hand washing.

Wash hands before preparing or serving foods. Have someone else prepare the food if you have cramps, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.

When handling raw meat or poultry, consider them contaminated! Wash your hands and any surfaces they have touched before proceeding. Be sure that meats, eggs, and poultry are fully cooked. Children should not eat raw eggs, or foods containing them.

Wash fruits and vegetables before eating.

Animal stool should also be considered to be contaminated. Wash after handling or close contact.

Teach your kids to wash their hands after toileting and before eating. Instant, alcohol-based hand cleansers can be very useful when you’re on the go.

Last medical review on: July 27, 2019
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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