Campylobacter infection causes gastroenteritis that can last for one to 2 weeks. Most people recover if they rest and drink fluids, but they can also be given antibiotics if needed. In rare cases, campylobacter may cause other illnesses.
What causes campylobacter infection?
Campylobacter infection (also called campylobacteriosis) is caused by the campylobacter bacteria. Unlike some other microorganisms that cause food poisoning, campylobacter doesn’t often cause outbreaks of gastroenteritis that affect many people. It usually causes only isolated cases of illness.
You can be infected with campylobacter if you:
- eat contaminated food (mainly poultry)
- drink contaminated water or unpasteurised milk
- have contact with a contaminated person
- have contact with contaminated pets or farm animals
You are more likely to pick up a campylobacter infection if you are very young or elderly, have an impaired immune system, or if you are malnourished.
Symptoms usually appear between 2 and 5 days after infection. The illness usually starts with a fever, followed by stomach cramps and diarrhoea, which might be bloody. Most people with campylobacter infection don’t vomit.
The illness generally lasts for 1 or 2 weeks.
Complications of campylobacter infection
Very occasionally, people with campylobacter infection develop complications including:
- Guillain–Barré syndrome — a nervous disorder that causes weakness or paralysis, often for several weeks or months
- reactive arthritis — joint swelling and pain that usually lasts for 3 to 12 months
- sepsis (septicaemia or blood poisoning)
- urinary tract infection
Campylobacter infection can only be diagnosed accurately with pathology testing of a stool (poo) or blood specimen. Your doctor will probably ask for a sample only if you are very unwell or if there is blood in your stools.
When to see a doctor
If your child is under 12 months old, take them to the doctor if they have any symptoms of campylobacter infection.
Older children and adults should see a doctor if they have any of the following:
- signs of dehydration, such as decreased urination, lethargy or dry mouth
- bloody diarrhoea
- stomach pain
- diarrhoea for more than 2 days
Most people who get infected with campylobacter recover in about a week without medical treatment, although it can take up to 2 weeks to recover.
The best treatment for gastroenteritis symptoms is to rest and drink fluids.
- Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids, such as an oral rehydration solution available from pharmacies.
- If you don’t have a rehydration drink, you could use diluted juice or a soft drink (mix 1 part drink to 4 parts water – for example, 40 ml drink with 160 ml water).
- Alternatively, use cordial (mix 1 part cordial to 20 parts water – for example, 5 ml cordial with 100 ml water).
- Avoid taking anti-vomiting or anti-diarrhoeal medications unless they are recommended by your doctor.
- See your doctor if your symptoms are severe. You might be asked to take antibiotics if you are seriously ill.
You can reduce your chance of campylobacter infection by avoiding risky foods and practising good personal hygiene. Thoroughly cook meat, poultry and eggs – never eat poultry if it is still pink in the middle.
It is important to prepare, cook and store your food safely. Safe food handling and storage will avoid transmission from an infected food item to other foods – for example, from raw chicken to fresh food. Always wash your hands after handling raw poultry and other meat.
To prevent the spread of campylobacter, you should also:
- keep yourself or your child away from work, school or day care for at least 24 hours after the symptoms of diarrhoea have disappeared
- avoid swimming until at least 24 hours after the symptoms of diarrhoea have disappeared
- wash your hands after patting your pet or farm animals
- seek veterinary treatment for your pet if it has diarrhoea
- if you swim with your baby, dress them in well-fitting waterproof pants
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Last reviewed: September 2020