Enteric campylobacteriosis is an infection of the small intestine caused by a class of bacteria called Campylobacter. It’s one of the most common causes of diarrhea and intestinal infection worldwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 1.3 million people in the United States are affected by it every year.
Usually, only a small number of people are infected at a time. However, it may also occur as an outbreak. In other words, many people may be infected at the same time. A common contamination source can cause an outbreak.
The symptoms usually take two to three days to appear. Some people may not experience any symptoms at all. When symptoms do occur, they typically include:
- diarrhea and sometimes bloody feces
- abdominal pain
- abdominal cramping
- fever, headaches, and muscle pain, which are usually experienced during the first 24 hours of infection
- dehydration, which may also cause dizziness, nausea, headaches, dry mouth, tiredness, and oliguria (infrequent urination)
- a constant feeling that you need to pass stool
- vomiting, which is rare
Diarrhea can make you dehydrated. Severe dehydration can potentially be life-threatening. It’s important to remain hydrated by drinking plenty of water and fluids that contain electrolytes. In extreme cases, you may need to be hospitalized to receive intravenous fluids, which are fluids administered through your veins.
The majority of infections are caused by a species of the bacteria called Campylobacter jejuni. However, Campylobacter fetus and Campylobacter coli can also infect humans.
The Campylobacter species of bacteria are often found in birds and chickens. These animals provide the ideal living situation for the bacteria. When a chicken is slaughtered, the bacteria may migrate from the animal’s intestines to their muscles. This is the meat we end up eating.
The most common way to get infected is to eat raw or undercooked poultry. People who work around poultry are also at increased risk of infection.
Other things that may increase your chances of being infected include:
- travel to developing countries
- a lack of clean food or water
- cross-contamination, such as from using a cutting board that’s used for both raw meat and ready-to-eat vegetables
- drinking unpasteurized milk because a cow can pass the bacteria to its milk if it gets infected with Campylobacter bacteria
Your doctor will ask you if you’ve recently traveled outside the country. They may also ask about other members of your family who may be sick. This can help them learn if you’re at risk for Campylobacter infection.
A stool culture is the primary method of diagnosis. A sample of your stool will be sent to the laboratory to identify the bacteria causing your infection. Your stool may also be examined under a microscope. The presence of red blood cells and white blood cells can indicate infection.
The infection usually resolves on its own after a few days. Most people usually recover within two days without any specific treatment.
In more serious cases, it can take up to 10 days for the infection to clear.
Antibiotics may be useful if they’re taken early. They may shorten the duration of your symptoms. Commonly prescribed antibiotics are erythromycin, ciprofloxacin, and azithromycin.
For most people, the symptoms should start to clear in about a week. However, Campylobacter infection is more dangerous for older adults and people with compromised immune systems.
Rarely, some people may develop Guillain-Barre syndrome. In this autoimmune condition, your body’s immune system attacks your nerves. It can occur a few weeks after the initial infection and may cause temporary paralysis. Some people may also develop post-infectious arthritis, although this is also rare. This complication is thought to be due to an immune response. The arthritis typically involves the knee, but it can be migratory and involve several joints.
To lower your chances of being infected, practice good kitchen hygiene by taking these steps:
- Cook all meat and poultry well.
- Wash your hands on a regular basis and before eating your meals.
- Wash your hands immediately after touching raw meat.
- Use separate cutting boards for meat and other foods.
- Always clean cooking and eating utensils well.
- Avoid drinking unpasteurized milk.
- If you’re not sure if your water or milk is safe, boil it before drinking.
Taking these steps to practice food safety can help reduce contamination and prevent an infection.