Enteric campylobacteriosis is an infection of the small intestine caused by a class of bacteria called Campylobacter. It is one of the most common causes of diarrhea and intestinal infection worldwide. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 2.4 million people are affected every year (CDC).
Usually a single or a few individuals are infected at a time. However, it may also occur as an outbreak; many people may be infected at the same time. This may be due to a common contamination source.
The majority of infections are caused by a species of the bacteria called Campylobacter jejuni. Other species that may also infect humans are Campylobacter fetus and Campylobacter coli.
The Campylobacter species are often found in birds and chickens. These animals provide the ideal atmosphere for the bacteria to live in. When a chicken is slaughtered, the bacteria may migrate from the intestines to the muscles (the meat that 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:
- travelling to developing countries
- lack of clean food or water
- cross-contamination (for example, using the same cutting board or knife for raw meat and ready-to-eat vegetables)
- drinking unpasteurized milk (if a cow gets infected with Campylobacter bacteria, it may pass the bacteria to the milk)
The symptoms usually take two to three days to appear. Some infected individuals may not experience any symptoms at all. When symptoms do occur, they typically include:
- diarrhea—watery, and sometimes bloody
- abdominal pain and cramping
- fever, headaches, myalgia (muscle pain)—these symptoms are usually experienced during the first 24 hours of infection.
- dehydration—which may also bring the following related symptoms: dizziness, nausea, headaches, dry mouth, tiredness, and oliguria (infrequent urination).
- tenesmus—constant feeling that you need to pass stool; experienced by approximately 25 percent of infected individuals
- vomiting (rare)
Diarrhea can make you dehydrated. Severe dehydration can potentially be life threatening. It is important to remain hydrated by drinking plenty of water and fluids that contain electrolytes. In extreme cases, you may need to be hospitalized to be administered intravenous fluids (fluids administered through your veins).
Your doctor will ask you if you have recently travelled outside the country or about others in your family who may be sick. This is to determine if you are 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 the infection. Your stool may also be examined under a microscope for red blood cells and white blood cells, whose presence may indicate infection.
The infection usually resolves itself after a few days. Most people usually recover on their own in 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 administered early; they shorten the duration of the symptoms. Commonly prescribed antibiotics are erythromycin, ciprofloxacin, and azithromycin.
For most people, symptoms should start to clear in about a week. However, Campylobacter infection is more dangerous for the elderly or the immunocompromised.
Rarely, some people may develop Guillain-Barré syndrome. This is an autoimmune condition in which your body’s immune system attacks your nerves. It occurs a few weeks after the initial infection and may cause temporary paralysis. Some people may also develop a post-infectious arthritis, although this is also rare. This joint fluid is sterile and this complication is thought to be due to an immune response. The arthritis typically involves the knee but can be migratory and involve several joints.
To lower your chances of being infected, it is essential to practice good kitchen hygiene. For example:
- cook all meat and poultry thoroughly
- wash your hands before eating your meals, and on a regular basis, in general
- wash your hands immediately after touching raw meat
- use separate cutting boards for meat and other foods
- always clean cooking and eating utensils thoroughly
- avoid drinking unpasteurized milk
- if you are not sure of the safety of your water and/or milk, boil them before drinking