What is Campylobacter? Symptoms, Causes, & Treatment Options

Anyone who has spent time around chickens or that first summer job as a chicken catcher knows about Campylobacter. It’s the most common bacterial food-borne illness in the U.S. Each year, there are nearly 1 million cases of Campylobacter infection reported, with an average of 280,000 of those resulting in hospitalization and 17 deaths.

It is one of the primary causes of food-borne illness in the U.S., Canada and other developed countries because it thrives in environments where sanitation is poor, like at poultry processing plants or when raw meats are left out at unsafe temperatures.

While you can contract Campylobacter through contaminated water, green vegetables, and raw or undercooked chicken (or any red meat for that matter), it is most often contracted through uncooked or undercooked chicken — especially broiler chickens that are processed with other chickens as part of a tight process at high speeds.

What is Campylobacter?

Campylobacter is a genus of bacteria that is the most common cause of bacterial food-borne illness in the U.S. Most people will experience mild symptoms such as diarrhea and abdominal cramps, but some people can develop more serious consequences from the infection, including arthritis, paralysis, or death. You are most likely to contract Campylobacter from eating raw or undercooked poultry, although it can also be found in unpasteurized dairy products and untreated water.

The bacteria are very common in food production environments, especially among poultry. Chickens are the primary source of human infection, but other birds, including wild waterfowl, turkeys, and domestic ducks can also carry the bacteria. Other animals, including wild rodents, domesticated pets, and wild or stray cats, can also be sources of human infection, though this is much less common.

Symptoms of Campylobacter Infection

The majority of people who contract Campylobacter won’t experience any symptoms at all. In those that do, the most common symptoms are abdominal cramping, diarrhea, and fever. Most people who contract Campylobacter experience these symptoms for a few days and then fully recover, but in rare cases, Campylobacter can lead to Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare disorder that can cause muscle weakness or paralysis.

People who have compromised immune systems, children, or the elderly are at an increased risk for developing more serious complications from the bacteria.

Causes of Campylobacter infection

Most cases of Campylobacter infection are associated with eating raw or undercooked poultry products that were contaminated during processing. Contaminated water may also lead to transmission.

Signs and symptoms of the infection are usually self-limited and resolve without antibiotic treatment; however, in rare cases, the infection can lead to more serious complications, particularly in those with weakened immune systems, such as pregnant women, newborns, and people with chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Treating Campylobacter Infection

Most cases of Campylobacter are mild and do not require treatment. To reduce the risk of transmission, wash hands thoroughly after using the bathroom and before handling food. If you experience more serious symptoms, such as diarrhea, consult your doctor. There are several ways to prevent contracting Campylobacter from contaminated poultry and other foods.

If you are pregnant, avoid undercooked poultry, raw milk, and other unpasteurized dairy products. Wash your hands after using the bathroom and before handling food; use separate cutting boards for meat and produce; and thoroughly cook all foods to the proper internal temperature to kill any potential bacteria.

Summary: Campylobacter Treatment

If you’re going to be around chickens or consuming undercooked or raw poultry, you’re going to run the risk of contracting Campylobacter. For those of us who aren’t poultry farmers, it’s important to be aware of the risk, take proper precautions around poultry, and thoroughly cook all foods to kill the bacteria.

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with Campylobacter, it’s important to follow a healthy diet, drink plenty of water, and rest when needed. If symptoms persist for more than a few days, you may want to visit the doctor to be on the safe side.


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