Campylobacter Infection: Everything You Need to Know about This Common Foodborne Illness
From watery diarrhea to possible infection of the blood, Campylobacter can be simple food poisoning or a fatal infection.
Campylobacter infection, or Campylobacteriosis, is a foodborne illness caused by the bacteria of genus Campylobacter. While infections by C. jejuni and C. coli are common, C. fetus infection is rare.
Did you know Campylobacter is one of the major causes of traveler’s diarrhea? In fact, one study found that Campylobacter was responsible for most cases of food poisoning among American military personnel deployed in Thailand.
So, does it mean this infection affects only developing countries? No. There have been several outbreaks of Campylobacter in the US both in the past and in recent times.
According to a 2018 CDC report, there was an outbreak of multidrug-resistant Campylobacter infection starting from January 12, 2016 to January 7, 2018. Investigators have linked the outbreak to contact with pet store puppies. Most of the bacteria isolated from the patients and the puppies were resistant to commonly prescribed antibiotics.
While Campylobacter infection typically goes away on its own, it can cause life-threatening complications in some individuals. Therefore, it is imperative to learn the signs and symptoms of the disease, available treatments, and prevention methods to prevent it becoming a life-threatening illness.
What is Campylobacter?
Campylobacter (informal “Campy”) refers to a group of Gram-negative S- or V-shaped bacteria that usually live in the intestines of animals such as poultry and cattle.
You can get the bacteria into your system if you eat undercooked poultry or foods that have come in contact with raw or undercooked poultry. In addition, raw milk can also carry the bacteria.
Once ingested, they can cause diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever, nausea, and less commonly vomiting. Blood may be present in the stools.
In persons with compromised immune systems, it can cause a potentially life-threatening infection of the blood.
Campylobacter grows well in the temperature ranges from 98.6°F to 107.6°F. However, most species cannot grow at temperatures below 86°F. Freezing and thawing significantly reduce the bacterial counts.
Campylobacter Gastroenteritis Signs and Symptoms
Campylobacter symptoms usually develop between two to seven days after exposure to the bacteria. For most people, the symptoms are mild, such as a few bouts of loose stools that tend to go away on their own within a few days.
However, a full-blown infection can cause:
- Fever as high as 104°F that can persist for a week
- Muscle aches
- A general feeling of illness
- Severe abdominal cramps most frequently in the right lower part of the abdomen
- A general feeling of incomplete bowel evacuation
- Watery or bloody diarrhea up to ten times a day
Campylobacter: Causes of Infection
Consuming undercooked poultry, drinking raw milk, and handling feces of infected animals (including cattle, pigs, cats, and dogs) can cause Campylobacter enteritis.
Reports show the bacteria can also spread by exposure to contaminated water during recreational activities.
Campylobacter Treatment: What are Your Options?
For most people, no specific treatment is necessary. Make sure to drink plenty of fluids to replace the lost water. If you are not able to drink, your doctor might consider using intravenous fluids.
Do not take over-the-counter (OTC) medications to treat diarrhea before talking to your doctor. These OTC anti-diarrheal medications can slow down the downward movement of the intestines, and lead to the accumulation of bacteria in the gut.
Antibiotic treatment may be necessary if you have a weakened immune system or if the symptoms are serious. These symptoms may include high fever, bloody diarrhea, and bowel movements more than eight times per day.
Your doctor may prescribe one of the following antibiotics:
- Levofloxacin (Levaquin)
- Azithromycin (Zithromax, Zmax)
- Ciprofloxacin (Cipro, Cetraxal, Ciloxan)
In severe cases of the infection caused by C. fetus, the doctor may use gentamicin, or alternately ampicillin.
Campylobacter: Infection Complications
Complications due to Campylobacter enteritis are less common.
Untreated and immunocompromised patients or those who have developed resistance to commonly used antibiotics may develop serious complications, such as:
It is a serious infection of the bloodstream. Bacteremia or septicemia can result when the bacteria in the gut move to the circulating blood. It can lead to sepsis, in which the major organs of the body fail to function.
Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS)
Rarely, Campylobacter bacteria can trigger an immune response against healthy nerves in the body, which leads to Guillain-Barre Syndrome. GBS can cause weakness, tingling, numbness, and eventually paralysis.
Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS)
HUS is a leading cause of kidney failure in young children. It is usually detected seven to ten days after the early symptoms have appeared.
Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP)
TTP causes problems with blood clotting and can lead to bruises over the body. It is considered a variation of HUS and is more common in elderly.
Inflammation of the gallbladder (Cholecystitis)
It occurs when the ducts that carry bile from the gallbladder to the intestines are blocked. Unlike other complications mentioned above, it not very serious yet warrants a medical attention.
Arthritis linked to Campylobacteriosis is rare. Typically, the symptoms of arthritis, such as swelling and pain in the joints, develop within four weeks after the infection.
How Can You Prevent Campylobacteriosis?
Because Campylobacter is sensitive to heat, cooking poultry and meats at temperatures higher than 160°F is the best way to prevent an infection. Additionally, using frozen chicken instead of fresh chicken can also significantly reduce the risk of the infection.
The other prevention methods include:
- Wash your hands after you handle uncooked poultry and meat.
- Use separate cutting boards for meat and other foods.
- After you use the kitchen countertops and utensils that have come in contact with raw meat, wash them thoroughly with soap and hot water.
- Do not drink raw milk or untreated water.
- Wash your hands thoroughly after you have touched your pet that is sick with diarrhea. Do not let pets come in contact with young children and seniors.
Campylobacter Interesting Facts
- Campylobacter ranks among the TOP FOUR major causes of diarrhea globally.
- Campylobacter infections are frequent among children younger than two years.
- Campylobacter infections are more common in summer than in winter.
- In 2012, Campylobacteriosis caused an annual loss of approximately $1.56 billion (or $1,846 per case) in the US alone, according to one study in The Journal of Food Protection.
- There are 17 species and 6 subspecies of the bacteria. Among these, C. jejuni and C. coli account for the most cases of diarrhea in humans. The less common species that can cause diseases in humans are – C. lari and C. upsaliensis.
- The bacteria is sensitive to heat, hence, thorough cooking is an effective way to prevent infections. Likewise, they are also sensitive to acid in the stomach.
- Antibiotics – azithromycin (Zithromax), levofloxacin (Levaquin) and ciprofloxacin (Cipro) – are commonly used for treating the infection.
- Human-to-human transmission of the bacteria is rare; one exception is person-to-person sexual contact.