Campylobacter refers to a group of bacteria that is commonly found in the intestines of animals, including poultry, wild birds, swine, cattle, rodents and household pets. Campylobacter jejuni and Campylobacter coli are the two species that most often infect humans, causing an illness called campylobacteriosis.
A person becomes infected from eating or drinking contaminated food, water, unpasteurized or raw milk or from close contact with infected animals or infants.
Campylobacteriosis attacks the digestive system, causing diarrhea, abdominal pain, malaise, fever, nausea and vomiting.
What causes campylobacteriosis? How is it spread?
Eating undercooked meat or contaminated food, drinking unpasteurized (raw) milk or untreated drinking water can cause campylobacteriosis.
Close contact with infected infants, through diapering, infected puppies, kittens or farm animals can also cause illness.
Food and water can become contaminated with these bacteria from the environment, for example from soil or sewage.
Food can also become contaminated from food handlers who have not properly washed their hands after touching raw meat or after using the washroom. The bacteria can also transfer from a primary source, such as chicken, to contaminate other foods or surfaces, including cutting boards, knives and plates.
What are the symptoms of illness caused by Campylobacter?
Like other food-borne illnesses, the symptoms of campylobacteriosis mainly involve the gut. These symptoms can include:
- diarrhea (blood or mucus)
- abdominal pain
How long do the symptoms last?
Campylobacteriosis symptoms generally occur two to five days after exposure to the bacteria, but may occur as soon as one day or up to one month after exposure. Symptoms generally last up to 10 days.
How long are people infectious?
People who are infected with Campylobacter bacteria can spread the bacteria to others throughout their illness and may be infectious for several days to several weeks.
Some people infected with Campylobacter do not have any symptoms. However, they can still spread the bacteria to others.
Are there certain foods that increase the risk of getting campylobacteriosis?
Some foods pose a greater risk for getting campylobacteriosis:
- raw or undercooked poultry, beef, pork and lamb
- raw eggs
- unpasteurized (raw) milk, unpasteurized milk products
- raw vegetables
Are certain people more likely than others to get sick from Campylobacter?
Anyone can get sick from Campylobacter. However, in industrialized countries, children younger than five years and young adults are more likely to get sick from Campylobacter.
Is campylobacteriosis dangerous? Is it more dangerous for certain people?
Although most people completely recover from campylobacteriosis within 10 days, complications can occur in rare cases. The elderly, young children, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are at greater risk of experiencing complications.
Complications from campylobacteriosis can include:
- reactive arthritis
- meningitis (infection of the brain and spinal cord)
- Guillain-Barré syndrome (an auto-immune disorder affecting the nervous system)
- chronic colitis (inflammation of the colon)
- sudden gall bladder inflammation
- irritable bowel syndrome
How are people diagnosed and treated for campylobacteriosis?
Campylobacteriosis is diagnosed by performing laboratory tests on the stools of potentially infected people.
Most people recover from campylobacteriosis without treatment.
Those suffering from illness should drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration – a possible serious health effect of a food-borne illness. The most helpful fluids for protecting against dehydration are oral rehydration fluids. These products are sold as pre-mixed fluids and are commonly found in drug stores. Other drinks that do not contain caffeine or alcohol can also help with mild dehydration; however, these drinks may not replace the nutrients and minerals lost during illness.
Young children, the elderly and people with other illnesses are at greatest risk for dehydration. Symptoms of dehydration in adults and children include a decrease in urination, a dry mouth and throat and dizziness upon standing. A dehydrated child may cry with few or no tears and be unusually sleepy or fussy. Severe dehydration can be serious and the ill person may require rehydration in a hospital. If you think you or someone under your care is dehydrated, contact your healthcare provider.
How can Campylobacter infections be prevented?
Hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of food-borne illness.
It is also important to ensure you thoroughly cook foods to destroy bacteria. Contaminated foods may look and smell normal.
The following tips will help you reduce your risk of infection with Campylobacter bacteria or other food-borne illnesses:
- Thoroughly cook all food, especially poultry, to the appropriate cooking temperature. Use a digital food thermometer.
- Purchase eggs and shellfish from reputable sources.
- Only drink treated or boiled water and pasteurized milk and milk products.
- Bacteria can grow in the danger zone between 4°C and 60°C (40°F to 140°F). Keep cold foods cold at or below 4°C (40°F) and keep hot foods hot at or above 60°C (140°F).
- Place raw meat, poultry and seafood in containers on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Use containers that are large enough to prevent raw juices from dripping onto other food or touching other food.
- Keep raw food away from other food while shopping, storing, preparing and serving foods.
- Wash fresh fruits and vegetables before eating them, clean counters and cutting boards and wash your hands regularly.
- Read labels and follow cooking and storage instructions for all foods. Make sure to check the best before date, and if you find something on the shelf that has expired, let the store know.
- Use warm soapy water to clean knives, cutting boards, utensils, your hands and any surfaces that have come in contact with food, especially meat and fish.
- Refrigerate or freeze perishable food within two hours of cooking.
- Freeze or consume leftovers within four days of cooking. Always reheat leftovers until steaming hot before eating.
- Keep refrigerators clean and at a temperature below 4ºC, or 40ºF. Install a thermometer in your fridge to be sure.
If you think you are infected with campylobacteriosis or any other food-borne illness, do not prepare food for other people unless you wear disposable gloves and follow safe food handling procedures.
Does the Public Health Agency of Canada keep track of cases of campylobacteriosis across the country?
Yes. The Agency works with the provinces and territories to track the number of laboratory-confirmed cases of campylobacteriosis across the country.
Are campylobacteriosis outbreaks common in Canada?
Campylobacteriosis is the most frequently reported food-related illness in Canada. Many of these illnesses are sporadic cases, but some are part of outbreaks.
Outbreaks of campylobacteriosis are uncommon in Canada, but do occur.
A case refers to illness in one person whereas an outbreak refers to two or more people linked by a common exposure within a specific time frame.
A national outbreak occurs when illness is linked in two or more provinces or territories.
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