What is Campylobacter infection?
Campylobacter infection is a type of stomach flu (gastroenteritis). Some people call it food poisoning. The most common symptoms are diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramping and fever.
This foodborne illness starts after someone eats or drinks something that has Campylobacter bacteria in it. If you take in enough bacteria, you may become infected. Usually, symptoms show up one to seven days after coming into contact with the bacteria.
How common is Campylobacter infection?
Researchers don’t have exact numbers of how many people have it each year. That’s because most people don’t go to the doctor for food poisoning, such as Campylobacter infections. Healthcare providers diagnose Campylobacteriosis in about 20 out of every 100,000 people yearly. However, some estimates put the number of Campylobacter infections at more than 1.5 million every year. This is one of the most common foodborne illnesses in the U.S.
Symptoms and Causes
How do you get Campylobacter infection?
A Campylobacter infection starts after someone eats or drinks something with the bacteria. Uncooked or undercooked food can lead to an infection. Some common foods that can have Campylobacter are:
- Dairy products that have not been pasteurized (sterilized to kill bacteria).
- Untreated water.
You can also get the bacteria from accidentally touching the waste (poop) of an infected animal. Cats and dogs can both carry Campylobacter. And some people have gotten infected after handling puppies for sale at a pet store. Always make sure you wash your hands after cleaning up after an infected pet or handling unfamiliar animals.
Older people and the very young have the highest infection risk. Also, people with weaker immune systems can more easily get infected. Weakened immune systems can come from cancer treatment, immunodeficient states, being a smoker or drinking large amounts of alcohol.
What are Campylobacter symptoms?
A Campylobacter infection has symptoms that you would expect with so-called stomach flu (which is not the same as influenza, a respiratory illness). You may have:
- Diarrhea (sometimes with blood).
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Stomach cramps.
Not everyone will get sick. Those who do get sick usually start feeling ill one to seven days after infection. Symptoms last about one week.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is Campylobacter infection diagnosed?
The most common test to detect a Campylobacter infection uses a stool sample. Your healthcare provider sends a sample of your poop to the lab, where technicians test it for the bacteria.
In extremely rare cases, the bacteria can get into your blood. If this happens, it can cause a life-threatening infection. Your healthcare provider will order a blood test to check if this has happened.
Management and Treatment
How is Campylobacter infection treated?
For most cases of food poisoning, there is no specific treatment. The illness will run its course in about a week. If your healthcare provider can confirm a Campylobacter infection, antibiotics may be prescribed to help speed up recovery.
Your healthcare provider will recommend drinking more fluids because diarrhea and vomiting can both cause dehydration. Also, make sure you replenish electrolytes — essential minerals, such as sodium, calcium and potassium. A sports drink can help with electrolytes.
Can Campylobacter infections cause complications?
Most people don’t have complications with Campylobacter infections. But there are some risks. Some rare complications include:
- Erythema nodosum, a painful infection of the fatty layer of skin, usually on the legs
- Guillain-Barré syndrome.
- Reactive arthritis, joint inflammation caused by an infection.
How can I prevent Campylobacter infection?
You can avoid getting food poisoning from Campylobacter with a bit of precaution. To avoid getting sick, wash your hands:
- After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
- After using the toilet, changing diapers or cleaning up a child who used the bathroom.
- Before and after taking care of someone who is sick.
- After petting cats and dogs or cleaning up their poop.
- After touching garbage.
You should disinfect toilets after use by someone who has diarrhea. If you have diarrhea, you should wash your hands frequently with warm, soapy water.
When it comes to food safety, always wash your hands before handling food and after handling raw food. These tips also help:
- Avoid getting bacteria on other foods by using separate cutting boards for chicken/meat and vegetables.
- Clean utensils and countertops with hot soapy water after contact with raw meat.
- Cook meat (especially chicken) until there is no pink. If you go to a restaurant, send chicken back to the kitchen if it still has pink.
- Don’t drink water if you don’t know if it has been tested for purity — including water from streams.
- Only drink pasteurized milk.
Outlook / Prognosis
Can a Campylobacter infection be severe?
Campylobacter infections are very contagious, meaning you can get an infection easily. However, most people who get sick from it will feel better in about a week.
If your immune system is weak from diseases or chemotherapy, you may want to talk to a healthcare provider if you are concerned about Campylobacter or if you have a diarrheal illness.
When should I see my doctor?
You should see your healthcare provider if you have not started feeling better after a few days. Elderly adults and young children should see a healthcare provider if they have symptoms of stomach flu. The very young and old can get sick from the bacteria, and they have to watch out for dehydration, too.
If you or a loved one becomes dehydrated, see a healthcare provider as soon as possible. You might need intravenous (IV) fluids.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
No one likes getting sick, but sometimes, food poisoning happens. Fortunately, most people feel better after a few days. Some rest and plenty of liquids will help. If you don’t feel like you’re getting better, see your healthcare provider.
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