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Campylobacter: What you need to know

Learn about the causes of this foodborne illness and what you can do to protect yourself.

Tiny and shaped like spirals, Campylobacter bacteria look pretty cool under a microscope. But you wouldn't want to invite them to a barbecue.

Unfortunately, however, that's what many of us do. And we end up feeling lousy as a result.

Along with salmonella and E. coli, Campylobacter bacteria are one of the most common causes of foodborne illness. But there's much we can do to protect ourselves from getting sick.

How Campylobacter bacteria spread

Campylobacter are commonly found in the digestive tracts of cats, dogs, poultry, cattle and other animals, including humans, reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of the most common ways to get sick from Campylobacter is by eating undercooked poultry. You also can get sick by eating undercooked meat, drinking unpasteurized milk, or by eating or drinking food or water that's been contaminated by the feces of infected animals.

What are the symptoms?

Anyone can get sick from Campylobacter, but infants, young children, pregnant women and older adults are at increased risk, reports the USDA. And infection can be life-threatening to people with weakened immune systems due to HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes and other conditions.  

In most people, however, infection results in a short bout of diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever. According to CDC, these symptoms usually show up two to five days after infection and last about a week. Some people also may experience vomiting.

More rarely, infection can result in serious side effects. These can include meningitis, urinary tract infections, arthritis and Guillain-Barré syndrome—a disease of the nerves that can cause paralysis lasting several weeks. According to CDC, Guillain-Barré syndrome occurs in only 1 out of 1,000 people with Campylobacter.

What if I get sick?

Most people with Campylobacter infection recover without treatment.

According to CDC, you should call your doctor if you have:

  • Fever over 102 degrees.
  • Blood in your stools.
  • Prolonged vomiting that prevents you from keeping down liquids.
  • Signs of dehydration, including decreased urination and dry mouth or throat.
  • Diarrhea that lasts for more than three days.

A doctor may prescribe antibiotics for severe diarrhea. You should drink extra fluids as long as diarrhea lasts.

Staying safe

Follow these tips from CDC to reduce your risk for campylobacter infection:

  • Don't drink unpasteurized milk or untreated water.
  • Cook meat and poultry thoroughly. Cook fresh beef to a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees and ground beef to at least 160 degrees. Poultry should have a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees. Use a meat thermometer to check.
  • In restaurants, send back undercooked poultry.
  • Wash your hands with soap before preparing food. Wash them again after handling raw meat or poultry.
  • Use one cutting board for produce and a separate one for raw meat or poultry.
  • Clean all cutting boards, counters and utensils with soap and hot water.
  • Make sure children with diarrhea wash their hands often.
  • Wash your hands after contact with pet feces.

Getting help

Call your doctor if you have any questions or concerns about foodborne illness.

You can also learn more about preventing foodborne illness in the Food Safety health topic center.

Reviewed 3/7/2024

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