Campylobacter Infection

A Campylobacter infection (campylobacteriosis) is one of the most common causes of diarrhea. It’s a bacterial infection you can get from undercooked poultry, raw milk and untreated water. It’s also possible to get sick from contact with infected animals. Most people recover without treatment in about a week.


What is a Campylobacter infection?

A Campylobacter infection (campylobacteriosis) is a common stomach bug that causes diarrhea, stomach cramping, vomiting and fever. It occurs when Campylobacter bacteria enter your body — typically through something you eat or drink — and make you sick. Many people refer to this infection as food poisoning. But the bacteria can also spread in other ways, like through contact with an infected animal.

Most people feel sick for about five to seven days but recover just fine without treatment. You can take care of yourself at home by resting and drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.

How common are Campylobacter infections?

Campylobacter infections are very common among children and adults. They’re one of the top causes of diarrhea among people of all ages in the U.S. and globally.

Researchers estimate about 1.5 million Campylobacter infections occur each year in the U.S. They’re typically more common in the summer than the winter.


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Symptoms and Causes

What are Campylobacter infection symptoms?

Symptoms of a Campylobacter infection include:

You’ll notice symptoms about two to five days after you’re exposed to the bacteria. They’ll last for about a week.

Stomach bugs like Campylobacter can quickly lead to dehydration. Signs of dehydration to look out for in older children and adults include:

  • Feeling very thirsty.
  • Not peeing often.
  • Skin that’s warm to the touch.

Signs of dehydration in babies and toddlers include:

  • Less urine (pee) output than normal. In infants, this means fewer than six wet diapers per day, and in toddlers, it means no urine output for eight hours.
  • Fewer or no tears when crying.
  • Lack of interest in playing.
  • Excessive sleepiness.

What causes a Campylobacter infection?

Campylobacter bacteria cause this type of infection. This means bacteria (not viruses) are the germs responsible for making you sick. People call Campylobacter a stomach bug because a germ infects you. But since a virus isn’t involved, it’s not quite the same as stomach flu (viral gastroenteritis). Still, many people use the terms interchangeably, and the symptoms are similar.

What is Campylobacter jejuni?

Campylobacter jejuni (C jejuni) is the species of Campylobacter bacteria that’s most likely to make you sick.

When you keep rushing to the bathroom, you probably don’t care much about the specific germ that’s responsible. You just want to get better. But scientists keep track of the types of germs that cause different illnesses, including bacterial infections and viral infections. With Campylobacter infections, the culprits come from the Campylobacter genus of bacteria. A genus is a big category that contains many different species.

There are more than 20 Campylobacter species, but not all of them make people sick. The species that causes the most Campylobacter infections in humans is C. jejuni, followed by Campylobacter coli (C. coli).

How does Campylobacter spread?

Campylobacter bacteria spread to humans mostly through contaminated food and water. But they can also spread in other ways. Most people get sick from:

  • Drinking unpasteurized (raw) milk. Bacteria can enter the milk through trace amounts of manure or when a cow has an udder infection.
  • Eating poultry — like chicken, turkey, duck or goose — that’s not fully cooked.
  • Drinking untreated water — like water from contaminated streams or wells.

Though less common, you can also get a Campylobacter infection from:

  • Eating food that’s touched raw poultry or its juices (for example, lettuce prepared on a cutting board that contains traces of raw chicken juice).
  • Eating other types of meat or seafood that aren’t fully cooked.
  • Eating contaminated fruits or veggies.
  • Contact with the poop of infected animals, including pets.

Is Campylobacter contagious?

Yes, it’s possible for you to spread the infection to others. The bacteria live in your poop and from there can travel to your hands or elsewhere for other people to encounter. If someone touches a contaminated surface and then touches their mouth, they might get sick. But transmission between humans doesn’t happen as often as other methods (like eating undercooked poultry).

To avoid spreading Campylobacter, wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom.

When can people with Campylobacter return to work or school?

It’s generally safe to return once the diarrhea goes away and your poop becomes solid. But your healthcare provider is the best person to ask about how soon you or your child can return to normal activities. If you handle food or work in healthcare, you may need to stay home until all your symptoms are gone to avoid the risk of getting others sick.


What are the complications of this condition?

Campylobacter infections may lead to complications like:

People who have a weakened immune system may have more serious complications like a bloodstream infection. This can progress to a dangerous immune reaction called sepsis.

Sepsis is a medical emergency. Go to an emergency room immediately if you develop:

  • A fever over 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.4 degrees Celsius).
  • Confusion or disorientation.
  • Fast heart rate.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Extreme pain or discomfort.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is a Campylobacter infection diagnosed?

The most common test to detect a Campylobacter infection is a stool test. Your healthcare provider sends a sample of your poop to a lab, where technicians test it for bacteria.

Rarely, providers need to order a blood test to check if the bacteria has spread to your blood.


Management and Treatment

What should I know about Campylobacter treatment?

Most people don’t need treatment for a Campylobacter infection. It just has to run its course, which takes about one week. You can help avoid dehydration by:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Replenishing your electrolytes. A sports drink can help.

Healthcare providers sometimes prescribe antibiotics for people at risk of getting very sick. These include people who:

  • Are over age 65.
  • Are pregnant.
  • Have a weakened immune system.


How can I prevent a Campylobacter infection?

You can’t always prevent infections like Campylobacter, but there’s a lot you can do to lower your risk. Here are some simple steps you can take in your daily life to help keep your family healthy:

  • Be careful in the kitchen. Following food safety guidelines can greatly lower your risk of food-borne illness. It’s especially important to take care when handling raw meat. Research shows Campylobacter commonly live on raw poultry (like chicken, turkey and duck). And just one drop of juice from that package could have enough bacteria to make you sick.
  • Thoroughly cook meat and seafood. Cooking meat to the proper temperature can kill Campylobacter and other bacteria that could cause illness. Use caution when consuming raw fish (but completely avoid it if you’re pregnant, over age 65 or have a weakened immune system).
  • Choose pasteurized dairy. Unpasteurized (raw) milk is a leading cause of Campylobacter infections. Other products, like soft cheeses, might also contain unpasteurized milk even if it’s not as obvious. Read the labels on dairy products and look for the word “pasteurized” to know they’re safe.
  • Drink clean water. Campylobacter and other bacteria can easily contaminate water, even if it looks clean. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards for public water safety. But if you drink well water, it’s up to you to make sure it’s free of bacteria and other contaminants. You might also want to talk to your healthcare provider about ways to avoid contaminated water while traveling.
  • Wash your hands. Campylobacter is a germ, and germs love to hang out on your hands. From there, it’s just a short journey to your eyes, nose or mouth, where they can enter your body and make you sick. Good hand hygiene can protect yourself and others. This includes washing your hands before preparing food, after using the bathroom and after changing a baby’s diaper.

Preventing Campylobacter when you have a pet

Furry family members can spread germs just like humans do. Cats, dogs and other common pets sometimes carry Campylobacter bacteria. You can avoid getting sick by washing your hands after you:

  • Touch your pet.
  • Touch their food, water, bed or toys.
  • Clean up their poop, pee or throw up.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have a Campylobacter infection?

A Campylobacter infection can make you quite sick, but your symptoms should go away in five to seven days. Most people don’t have complications or long-term issues. If you develop complications, your healthcare provider will tell you what you can expect.

Living With

When should I see my healthcare provider?

Most people recover fine without the need for medical care. Call your provider if you’re pregnant, over age 65 or have a weakened immune system. They’ll talk to you about your risk for complications and let you know if you need treatment. You should also call your provider if you feel like you’re not getting better after about a week.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

It comes out of nowhere. One minute you’re feeling great and enjoying lunch. The next thing you know, you can barely make it to the bathroom in time. Most of us can remember such a time, and we’ve accepted that stomach bugs are simply a miserable part of life we can’t avoid. But what if, sometimes, we can?

From avoiding raw milk to using a meat thermometer, you can greatly lower your risk of coming down with a Campylobacter infection. If you or your child is at risk for complications, such diligence is especially important. Talk to your healthcare provider about ways to help keep yourself and your family healthy.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 05/20/2024.

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