Foodborne Illness

Common bacteria and viruses that cause food poisoning. An informational site sponsored by Marler Clark

Campylobacter

Campylobacter jejuni  is the most common cause of bacterial foodborne illness in the United States. Over 6,000 cases of Campylobacter infection were reported in 2009 alone, but many cases are not reported to public health authorities. A 2011 report from the CDC estimates that Campylobacter causes approximately 845,000 illnesses in the United States each year.

Campylobacter is found most often in food, particularly in chicken. Food is contaminated when it comes into contact with animal feces.  Any raw poultry may contain Campylobacter, including organic and “free range” products. In fact, studies have found Campylobacter contamination on up to 88 percent of chicken carcasses. Despite the commonness of Campylobacter, however, infections are usually isolated events, and widespread outbreaks are rare.

Campylobacter Symptoms

Symptoms of food poisoning from Campylobacter usually occur 2 to 5 days after a person eats contaminated food, but may take up to 10 days to appear. The most common symptom of a Campylobacter infection is diarrhea, which is often bloody.  Typical symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea: Diarrhea ranges from mild to severe and is often bloody
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain

Two age groups are most commonly affected by Campylobacter: children under 5 years of age and young adults aged 15-29.

Complications of Campylobacter Infection

Although complications from Campylobacter food poisoning are unlikely, they do occur in some cases. The following is a list of possible long-term consequences of Campylobacter infection.

Guillan-Barré Syndrome (GBS): Although rare, Guillan-Barré Syndrome is the most common cause of acute generalized paralysis in the western world.  GBS occurs when the antibodies the body builds up against Campylobacter attack one’s nerve cells. Symptoms of GBS appear several weeks after diarrheal illness. Approximately one in every 1000 reported Campylobacter cases results in GBS.

Reactive Arthritis: Campylobacter infection may also lead to reactive arthritis. Symptoms include inflammation of the joints, eyes, or reproductive or urinary organs. On average, symptoms appear 18 days after infection.

Other complications: Campylobacter may also cause appendicitis or infect specific parts of the body, including the abdominal cavity, the heart, the central nervous system, the gall bladder, the urinary tract, or the blood stream.

Diagnosis of Campylobacter Infection

To assess whether someone has a Campylobacter infection, doctors take a stool sample and send it to a laboratory for testing.  However, if the stool sample is taken after an individual has begun antibiotic treatment, the test results may be falsely negative.

Campylobacter Treatment

Campylobacter infections usually resolve after about a week, although treatment with antibiotics can shorten the course of the illness. Patients with Campylobacter poisoning should drink lots of fluids to stay hydrated as long as the diarrhea lasts. Antidiarrheal medication may also help lessen symptoms.

The amount of foodborne bacteria resistant to antibiotics is on the rise, so certain antibiotics may prove ineffective at treating a given type of Campylobacter. Finding an effective antibiotic is key to treating this bacterial infection.

How to Prevent Campylobacter Infection

Campylobacter jejuni grows easily if contaminated foods are left out at room temperature. The bacterium is sensitive to heat and other sterilization methods, including pasteurization, cooking meat fully, and water chlorination. Follow these easy safety procedures to avoid Campylobacter infection.

  • Make sure the thickest part of any poultry product you are cooking reaches 165 F (74 C)
  • Choose the coolest part of the car to transport meat and poultry home from the store
  • Defrost meat and poultry in the refrigerator or microwave, making sure juices do not drip
  • Do not cook stuffing inside the bird
  • Never leave food out at room temperature for over two hours
  • Use pasteurized milk and eggs
  • Wash fruits and vegetables carefully

Wash hands thoroughly after…

  • Contact with pets or farm animals
  • Preparing food, especially poultry
  • Changing diapers
  • Children return from school or daycare

Note: Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that causes peptic ulcers and gastritis, is often misconstrued as a Campylobacter. While it was originally thought that Helicobacter pylori was indeed a Campylobacter due to its similar structure, it is now known to be a different bacteria.

Additional Resources for Campylobacter

About-campylobacter.com is a comprehensive site with in-depth information about Campylobacter bacteria and Campylobacter infection.

Campylobacter Blog provides up-to-date news related to Campylobacter outbreaks, research, and more.

References

Tomb JF, White O, et al. “The complete genome sequence of the gastric pathogen Helicobacter pylori.” Nature 1997. 388(6642): 515-6