What Is It?
In humans, infection by one of several species of Campylobacter bacteria, particularly Campylobacter jejuni (C. jejuni) and Campylobacter fetus (C. fetus) typically results in diarrhea. In addition to diarrhea, the infection can cause fever and abdominal cramps. Humans usually become infected with Campylobacter bacteria after eating poorly prepared meat, especially undercooked chicken. According to government statistics, Campylobacter is currently the most common bacterial cause of food-borne illness in the United States, producing more infections than either Salmonella or Escherichia coli (E. coli). Although infants have an especially high rate of campylobacteriosis because of their immature immune defenses, young adults are also at higher risk of infection. The higher rate of Campylobacter infection among young adults may be to the result of lifestyle factors, especially inexperience in cooking and handling raw meats, that may increase their exposure to potentially contaminated foods. Because most healthy people probably develop some degree of immunity against Campylobacter as they mature, the number of cases of Campylobacter infection in middle-aged and older adults is fairly low.
Besides being transmitted to humans in tainted, undercooked meat, Campylobacter bacteria also can contaminate unpasteurized milk and untreated water. In addition, Campylobacter bacteria sometimes infect humans who have handled raw meat (especially poultry), who have touched a sick pet that has diarrhea, or who have traveled to undeveloped countries where sanitation is poor. Although it is also possible to develop campylobacteriosis after direct contact with an infected person, direct person-to-person spread is not common.
Among people with weakened immune defenses — especially those with HIV, cancer, liver disease or diabetes — Campylobacter bacteria can produce a pattern of recurrent infections. In these people, Campylobacter also can spread through the blood and attack other organs. In pregnant women, C. fetus bacteria can spread to the unborn child, sometimes causing fetal death.
Some people who have a Campylobacter infection never develop significant symptoms, and some have only a mild case of the illness that resolves on its own. When full-blown symptoms occur, they usually begin one to seven days after exposure to Campylobacter, with an average of two to five days. Initially, you may have a 12- to 48-hour period of fever, headache, muscle aches and malaise (a general feeling of sickness). These early symptoms are followed by crampy abdominal pain and diarrhea, sometimes with nausea and vomiting. In some cases, the diarrhea is fairly mild, with only a few loose stools each day. In other cases, there are more than 10 stools daily, and the diarrhea contains obvious blood.
Your doctor may suspect that you have some sort of food-related illness based on your history and symptoms. Even the most thorough physical examination cannot confirm that your symptoms are caused by a Campylobacter infection. Some patients have symptoms that are not typical, and the doctor might need to rule out other types of intestinal disorders, such as appendicitis, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. Ultimately, the only way to confirm that you definitely have been infected with Campylobacter is to collect a stool sample that is examined in a laboratory.
In adults who have normal immune defenses, Campylobacter infection is usually a self-limited illness that goes away on its own within seven to 10 days. With antibiotic treatment, symptoms often stop sooner, usually in about five days.
Without treatment, the illness recurs in up to 5 percent to 10 percent of otherwise healthy patients. Such relapses are also common in persons who have weakened immune defenses.
According to studies cited by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Campylobacter has been found in a significant percent of uncooked commercial chicken meat, raw veal and raw ground beef. Because of these high contamination rates, it is very important to cook all meat thoroughly before you eat it, to wash your hands after handling raw meat, and to wash kitchen countertops and utensils thoroughly after they have been used to prepare meat. You also can help to reduce your risk by never drinking unpasteurized milk or untreated water.
If your pet becomes sick with diarrhea, wash your hands thoroughly after you have cared for your sick pet. Keep all sick pets away from infants, elderly family members and family members with a weakened immune system, such as from HIV or cancer chemotherapy.
The first goal in treating Campylobacter-related diarrhea is to replace body fluids and electrolytes (chemical substances involved in many body processes) that have been lost. If you have severe diarrhea, you may be at risk of developing dehydration (an abnormally low level of body water). To treat your dehydration, your doctor will prescribe oral or intravenous (IV) fluids that will bring your body fluid levels back to normal.
Because Campylobacter infections are usually self-limited, your doctor may not treat you with an antibiotic if you are otherwise healthy. However, antibiotic treatment is usually necessary in the following situations:
- You have severe symptoms, including high fever, bloody diarrhea and more than eight stools per day.
- Your symptoms persist or worsen after seven days.
- You have an underlying illness that weakens the immune system.
- Laboratory cultures have confirmed that there are Campylobacter bacteria in your blood.
C. jejuni infections respond to a variety of antibiotics. The most commonly used antibiotics are erythromycin (numerous brand names), azithromycin (Zithromax), clarithromycin (Biaxin), ciprofloxacin (Cipro) and levofloxacin (Levaquin). In patients with campylobacteriosis, doctors may prescribe antidiarrheal medications to reduce the frequency of bowel movements.
When To Call A Professional
Call your doctor promptly if you develop symptoms of Campylobacter infection, especially if you have a high fever, severe diarrhea, bloody diarrhea or severe abdominal pain. Call your doctor immediately if a family member who is an infant, an elderly adult or who has an illness that weakens the immune system develops symptoms of Campylobacter.
Most otherwise healthy adults recover from Campylobacter infection within seven to 10 days, with an average of two to five days. Perhaps 5 percent to 10 percent of untreated adults, most commonly people with AIDS, suffer relapses. Although campylobacteriosis is rarely fatal, a severe infection may cause death in infants, the elderly and people with underlying illnesses.
About one in every 1,000 people with Campylobacter develops a complication called Guillain-Barré syndrome. Guillain-Barré syndrome is an illness that attacks the myelin (a fatty sheathlike covering) around nerves, causing neuromuscular paralysis. Although Guillain-Barré syndrome can be triggered by several different infectious illnesses, current research shows that about 40 percent of patients with Guillain-Barré syndrome have laboratory evidence of a recent C. jejuni infection.
In patients with Reiter’s syndrome, a Campylobacter infection can trigger an arthritis flare in one or more joints, usually within seven to 10 days after the onset of diarrhea.
Diseases and Conditions Center
All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.