What Are Campylobacter Infections?

Campylobacter bacteria are one of the main causes of diarrhea and foodborne illness ("food poisoning"). They can infect the gastrointestinal tract and cause diarrhea, fever, and cramps.

Good hand-washing and food safety habits will help prevent Campylobacter infections (or campylobacteriosis), which usually clear up on their own but sometimes are treated with antibiotics.

What Causes Campylobacter Infections?

Campylobacter (kam-pih-loh-BAK-tur) bacteria live in the intestines of many wild and domestic animals. They can pass to humans when animal feces (poop) contaminate food, meats (especially chicken), water (streams or rivers near where animals graze), and unpasteurized (raw) milk.

Once inside the human digestive system, Campylobacter infect and attack the lining of the small and large intestines. The bacteria also can affect other parts of the body. In some cases — particularly in very young kids and those with chronic illnesses or a weak immune system — they can get into the bloodstream (this is called bacteremia).

Are Campylobacter Infections Contagious?

Yes. Campylobacteriosis can spread from person to person when someone comes into contact with fecal matter (poop) from an infected person (especially a child in diapers). Household pets can carry and spread the bacteria to people.

Who Gets Campylobacter Infections?

More than 2 million people get a Campylobacter infection each year, with babies younger than 1 year old, teens, and young adults most commonly affected.

What Are the Symptoms of Campylobacter Infections?

Symptoms usually start 1 to 7 days after someone ingests the bacteria. The main symptoms are:

The diarrhea is watery at first, but later may contain blood and mucus. Sometimes, the abdominal pain seems worse than the diarrhea. When this happens, the infection may be mistaken for appendicitis or a problem with the pancreas.

What Problems Can Campylobacter Infections Cause?

Diarrhea can lead to dehydration, so kids with an infection should be watched closely. Signs of dehydration include thirst, irritability, restlessness, dizziness or drowsiness, sunken eyes, a dry or sticky mouth, dry skin, peeing less than usual, and in infants a dry diaper for more than 4–6 hours.

In a few cases, campylobacteriosis can lead to reactive arthritis (a type of joint inflammation) or, rarely, Guillain-Barré syndrome (an uncommon autoimmune disorder).

How Are Campylobacter Infections Diagnosed?

Doctors may send a stool sample to the lab to be tested for Campylobacter bacteria. They might order other lab tests, especially if there's blood in the stool. If needed, a blood test can confirm bacteremia.

How Are Campylobacter Infections Treated?

Most kids with Campylobacter infection will recover without needing medicine. Sometimes, doctors prescribe antibiotics, especially for very young children or when symptoms are severe or lasting. Kids should take the antibiotics on schedule for as long as the doctor directed to make sure the infection is gone. Do not use nonprescription medicines for diarrhea without a doctor's OK.

After seeing a doctor, most kids with Campylobacter infections can recover at home, especially if they aren't dehydrated. They should drink plenty of fluids for as long as the diarrhea lasts and be watched for signs of dehydration.

Kids with mild diarrhea and no dehydration should continue to eat normally and drink lots of fluids. Fruit juices and soft drinks can make diarrhea worse, though, and should be avoided. If your child is dehydrated, your doctor may recommend using an oral rehydration solution. Breastfed babies who get campylobacteriosis should continue to be breastfed throughout the illness.

Diarrhea usually stops within 2 to 5 days. Full recovery usually takes about 1 week. Sometimes, diarrhea can last longer or stop and then come back.

Can Campylobacter Infections Be Prevented?

To avoid Campylobacter infection, use drinking water that has been tested and approved for purity (especially in developing countries) and buy only pasteurized milk and juices. While hiking and camping, don't drink water from streams or from sources that pass through land where animals graze.

Wash your hands well before you prepare foods and after touching raw meats, especially poultry. Kill any bacteria in meats and eggs by cooking them thoroughly and eating while still warm. Refrigerate leftovers promptly. Wash cutting boards, countertops, and utensils with soap and hot water after contact with raw meat. Clean produce — especially leafy greens — before serving.

When caring for a family member who has diarrhea, wash your hands well and often, especially before touching other people and before eating or preparing food. Clean and disinfect toilets after the person with diarrhea uses them. Also, if a pet dog or cat has diarrhea, wash your hands often and check with your veterinarian about treatment.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Call your doctor if your child:

  • has diarrhea streaked with blood
  • is vomiting
  • shows any signs of dehydration
  • has abdominal pain
  • has a high fever
  • feels weak or has trouble walking

With rest and home care, most kids with a Campylobacter infection quickly make a full recovery.

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