Campylobacteriosis

Topic Overview

What is campylobacteriosis?

Campylobacteriosis is food poisoning caused by the campylobacter bacterium. It is one of the most common causes of diarrhea in the United States, affecting more than 2.4 million people every year.1

Campylobacteriosis occurs much more often in the summer months than in the winter months. Infants, young adults, and males are most likely to get the condition.

What causes campylobacteriosis?

Campylobacteriosis is usually caused by handling poultry (such as chicken or turkey) that is contaminated with the campylobacter bacterium and is raw or undercooked. For example, you can be infected by cutting poultry meat on a cutting board and then using the unwashed cutting board or utensil to prepare vegetables or other raw or lightly cooked foods. Drinking contaminated milk or water from contaminated lakes or streams can also result in infection.

Campylobacteriosis usually is not spread from person to person. But this can happen if you have the condition and do not properly wash your hands. Some people have become infected through contact with the infected stool of a dog or cat.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of campylobacteriosis include diarrhea, cramping, stomach pain, and fever within 2 to 5 days after exposure to the bacteria. Your diarrhea may be bloody, and you may feel sick to your stomach and vomit. The illness usually lasts 1 week. Some people don't have any symptoms at all. In people with impaired immune systems, campylobacteriosis can be life-threatening.

How is campylobacteriosis diagnosed?

Your doctor will do a medical history and a physical exam and ask you questions about your symptoms, foods you have recently eaten, and your work and home environments. A stool culture can confirm the diagnosis.

How is it treated?

You treat campylobacteriosis by managing any complications until it passes. Dehydration caused by diarrhea and vomiting is the most common complication. Do not use medicines, including antibiotics and other treatments, unless your doctor recommends them. Most people recover completely within a week after symptoms begin, although sometimes recovery can take up to 10 days.

To prevent dehydration, take frequent sips of a rehydration drink (such as Pedialyte). Try to drink a cup of water or rehydration drink for each large, loose stool you have. Soda and fruit juices have too much sugar and not enough of the important electrolytes that are lost during diarrhea, and they should not be used to rehydrate.

Try to stay with your normal diet as much as possible. Eating your usual diet will help you to get enough nutrition. Doctors believe that eating a normal diet will also help you feel better faster. But try to avoid foods that are high in fat and sugar. Also avoid spicy foods, alcohol, and coffee for 2 days after all symptoms have disappeared.

In more severe cases, your doctor may recommend antibiotics.

In rare cases, long-term problems can result from campylobacteriosis. Some people may have arthritis following campylobacteriosis. Others may develop a rare disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome. This occurs when your immune system attacks your nerves, which can lead to paralysis that lasts several weeks and usually requires that you go to a hospital.

How can you prevent campylobacteriosis?

You can prevent campylobacteriosis by practicing safe food handling (adapted from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

  • Shop safely. Bag raw meat, poultry, and fish separately from other food items. Young children can get sick from touching packaged poultry, so don't allow them to touch or play with packages of poultry in your grocery cart. Drive home immediately after finishing your shopping so that you can store foods properly.
  • Prepare foods safely. Wash your hands before and after handling food. Also wash them after using the bathroom or changing diapers. Wash fresh fruits and vegetables by rinsing them well with running water. If possible, use two cutting boards—one for fresh produce and the other for raw meat, poultry, and seafood. Otherwise, be sure to wash the cutting board with hot, soapy water between each use. You can also wash your knives and cutting boards in the dishwasher to disinfect them.
  • Store foods safely. Cook, refrigerate, or freeze meat, poultry, eggs, fish, and ready-to-eat foods within 2 hours. Make sure your refrigerator is set at 40°F (4°C) or colder.
  • Cook foods safely. Use a clean meat thermometer to determine whether foods are cooked to a safe temperature. Reheat leftovers to at least 165°F (74°C). Do not eat undercooked hamburger. And be aware of the risk of food poisoning from raw fish (including sushi), clams, and oysters.
  • Serve foods safely. Keep cooked hot foods hot [140°F (60°C) or above] and cold foods cold [40°F (4°C) or below].
  • Follow labels on food packaging. Food packaging labels provide information about when to use the food and how to store it. Reading food labels and following safety instructions will reduce your chances of becoming ill with food poisoning.
  • When in doubt, throw it out. If you are not sure whether a food is safe, don't eat it. Reheating food that is contaminated will not make it safe. Don't taste suspicious food. It may smell and look fine but still may not be safe to eat.

It is important to pay particular attention to food preparation and storage during warm months when food is often served outside. Bacteria grow faster in warmer weather, so food can spoil more quickly and possibly cause illness. Do not leave food outdoors for more than 1 hour if the temperature is above 90°F (32°C), and never leave it outdoors for more than 2 hours.

References

Citations

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). Campylobacter. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/nczved/divisions/dfbmd/diseases/campylobacter.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
W. David Colby IV, MSc, MD, FRCPC - Infectious Disease
Last Revised October 18, 2012

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