Campylobacter gastroenteritis is an infection in your gut caused by Campylobacter bacteria. The infection often leads to inflammation in your stomach and intestines.

Each year in the United States, Campylobacter bacteria cause an estimated 1.5 million stomach illnesses.

Eating raw or undercooked poultry, seafood, or meat is a common source of infection. The illness can also be transmitted via produce, milk, or water that has come into contact with the campylobacter bacteria.

In this article, we take a look at the symptoms of campylobacter gastroenteritis, as well as how best to treat and prevent this common stomach illness.

Campylobacter gastroenteritis is an intestinal infection that occurs when Campylobacter bacteria is present in your food or water.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Campylobacter bacteria is the most common bacterial cause of diarrhea in the United States. The bacteria can be found in a wide range of animals, particularly poultry. It can also be transmitted through water that hasn’t been properly treated.

Campylobacter gastroenteritis occurs more often in the summer than in winter. The Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network suggests that for every 100,000 people, approximately 20 cases of Campylobacter infection are diagnosed each year in the United States.

It’s estimated that many more cases are undiagnosed or go unreported.

Is campylobacter gastroenteritis the same as food poisoning?

Foodborne illness, more commonly referred to as food poisoning, results from eating contaminated, spoiled, or toxic food. The most common symptoms of food poisoning include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Food poisoning is often caused by Campylobacter bacteria, but it can be caused by other bacteria as well. This means food poisoning and campylobacter gastroenteritis are not the same.

They share common symptoms, but campylobacter gastroenteritis is always caused by Campylobacter bacteria.

If you have campylobacter gastroenteritis, you may experience symptoms such as:

Because campylobacter gastroenteritis affects the lining of the stomach and intestines, nausea and vomiting can often occur.

Symptoms generally start within two to five days of coming in contact with the bacteria and typically last one week.

Should you see a doctor if you suspect you have campylobacter gastroenteritis?

If your symptoms continue to worsen or you have not begun to recover in three days, it’s important to see a doctor — especially if you’re experiencing signs of dehydration.

Although most people who experience campylobacter gastroenteritis will recover on their own, sometimes an antibiotic is required.

Is it the stomach flu or campylobacter gastroenteritis?

Campylobacter causes gastroenteritis, which means the stomach and intestines are inflamed and irritated.

Oftentimes when people have symptoms of gastroenteritis, they refer to it as the “stomach flu.” But gastroenteritis is not related to the flu at all.

Campylobacter gastroenteritis symptomsFlu symptoms
diarrheaaching muscles
feverfever
headachechills, sweats
stomach crampsshortness of breath
nausearunny or stuffy nose
vomitingsore throat

It can take as little as a single drop of juice from raw chicken that has the Campylobacter bacteria to cause an infection.

Most infections are caused by eating raw or undercooked poultry or consuming food or water that has been contaminated with the Campylobacter bacteria.

How do food and water get contaminated with Campylobacter?

Campylobacter can contaminate food and water in different ways:

  • Milk can become contaminated when a cow has bacteria in her udder, which is why pasteurization is important to milk safety.
  • Animals can carry the bacteria in their intestines that can be transferred to the foods we eat when the animal is slaughtered.
  • Fruits and vegetables can be contaminated through soil or water or the feces of animals.
  • If water is untreated, bacteria have a greater chance of surviving.
  • People can get the bacteria if they do not thoroughly wash their hands or surface areas after handling raw chicken.

Who’s at risk of developing a more severe illness?

Young children, older adults, pregnant people, and people with weakened immune systems have a higher risk of developing severe illness from Campylobacter infection.

In rare cases, a life threatening infection could result if left untreated.

To diagnose campylobacter gastroenteritis, a doctor will first talk with you about your symptoms and how long you have been experiencing them.

If campylobacter gastroenteritis is suspected, they may use a laboratory test to detect the Campylobacter bacteria in your stool (poop), body tissue, or other bodily fluids.

Because symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration and depletion of minerals and electrolytes, a doctor may also check for signs of dehydration.

Symptoms of dehydration include:

Symptoms of dehydration in adultsSymptoms of dehydration in children
extreme thirstthirst
dry mouthdry mouth
urinating lessno wet diapers for three hours or more
fatigueno tears when crying
dark-colored urinelow energy
light-headednesssunken eyes or cheeks
skin slow to spring back in place after pinchingskin slow to spring back in place after pinching

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that most Campylobacter infections are mild and subside on their own.

If symptoms have not eased or stopped after three days of rest and drinking fluids, you may need to be treated with an antibiotic. If you’re dehydrated, a doctor may also recommend intravenous rehydration.

Most people recover from campylobacter gastroenteritis with rest and by drinking extra fluids. They generally start to feel better within three days without seeing a doctor.

However, if dehydration is suspected or if symptoms don’t ease after two to three days, you should seek medical help. This is especially true for young children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems.

To prevent you or your family from getting campylobacter gastroenteritis, it’s important to be cautious when handling chicken, meat, and seafood.

Here are some ways to prevent coming into contact with the bacteria:

  • Handle raw meat with extreme care by wrapping it in plastic bags at the grocery store. This also prevents juices from dripping on other foods.
  • Refrigerate foods, and avoid keeping them at room temperature.
  • Do not eat raw or undercooked poultry, meat, or eggs.
  • Do not drink raw (unpasteurized) milk or milk products.
  • Wash your cutting boards immediately after handling raw poultry or meat.
  • Always wash your hands with warm, soapy water after handling raw meat.

How long does campylobacter gastroenteritis typically last?

Symptoms of campylobacter gastroenteritis can begin to resolve as early as three days and generally do not last longer than one week.

How can I tell the difference between campylobacter gastroenteritis and the flu?

Campylobacter gastroenteritis comes from bacteria that attack the stomach and intestines. Symptoms include diarrhea, stomach cramping, nausea, and vomiting.

Influenza, or the flu, is a respiratory virus that attacks your nose, throat, and lungs. Symptoms include muscle aches, runny or stuffy nose, and sore throat. Both can cause fever and headaches.

Is campylobacter gastroenteritis contagious?

Campylobacter bacteria are passed in the feces (poop), which means people who have diarrhea should be isolated and excluded from childcare, patient care, and handling food for others.

That said, the illness is not contagious like an airborne flu virus and is not typically spread from one person to another.

Are there any complications associated with campylobacter gastroenteritis?

Complications from campylobacter gastroenteritis are rare, but they can occur.

Some people may develop arthritis and others may develop a rare disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome. Guillain-Barré syndrome happens when the body’s immune system starts to damage nerves in the body. It can cause muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis.

Can you die from campylobacter gastroenteritis?

Campylobacter gastroenteritis is generally a mild illness. Symptoms typically don’t last for longer than one week. However, it can be fatal among young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems.

See a doctor if symptoms linger for more than three days, particularly if you’re in a high risk category.

Campylobacter gastroenteritis is a type of food poisoning caused by Campylobacter bacteria. Symptoms are generally considered to be mild and include:

Most people recover with rest and hydration. However, if symptoms do not ease within two to three days, it’s important to see a doctor.