Campylobacter

Pronounced cam-pile-oh-bacter

Campylobacter infection is a common water and food-borne gastro illness caused by a bacteria called Campylobacter. It is passed on in the faeces (poo, tūtae) of infected birds, animals and humans.

How is campylobacter infection spread?

Campylobacter bacteria is found in the gut of birds (especially poultry) and animals such as cattle, sheep, cats and dogs. 

Campylobacter can’t be spread through the air but it can be spread through contaminated water and food, or from contact with infected people.

The most common way to become infected is by eating raw or undercooked chicken or other poultry. It can also be passed on to humans in the faeces (poo) of infected birds, animals or household contacts or by drinking contaminated water. 

Who is most at risk of campylobacter infection?

Those at higher risk of infection are young children (0 to 5 years), older adults (over the age of 60 years), travellers to developing countries where sanitation and food hygiene may be less strict and farm workers or meat processing workers.

What are the symptoms of campylobacter infection? 

Symptoms will usually appear 2 to 5 days after exposure and improve after 2 to 3 days. The main symptoms are:

  • watery diarrhoea, sometimes bloody
  • abdominal pain or cramping
  • fever
  • nausea and vomiting.

Some people do not get any symptoms. Others get a flu-like illness first, such as headache, muscle pains, fever and fatigue.

About 9 out of 10 affected people recover from the illness within one week. In rarer cases, complications can occur including dehydration, relapses over weeks, irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis or acute paralysis (Gullian Barre syndrome).

How is campylobacter infection diagnosed?

Diagnosis can often be made by tracing the course of the illness to its starting point.

For severe symptoms or ongoing diarrhoea, a stool (poo) sample may need to be collected and sent to the laboratory for testing.

  • Until recently, three stool samples were required. Since most cases are found in the first sample, only one sample is now needed.
  • If the sample is negative but symptoms continue, then further stool samples are recommended.

Campylobacter is a notifiable disease. This means your doctor will notify the Public Health Service that you have campylobacter. Someone from your local public health team may contact you to find out how you picked up the bacteria. This helps them trace the source of infection to reduce the risk to others of a large outbreak. See the Ministry of Health's schedule of notifiable diseases.

How can campylobacter infection be treated?

Most people will recover without the need for any special medication. You can help your recovery by:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids to avoid getting dehydrated. Take extra care with young children and older adults who can become dehydrated very quickly.
  • Eating as you feel able. Start with bland food such as toast or rice.

In certain cases, your doctor may recommend a course of antibiotics.

Antibiotics:

  • have little impact on the duration and severity of symptoms
  • may help prevent the spread of the disease by killing the bacteria in your bowel motion.

Antibiotic treatment is recommended for: 

  • severe or prolonged infection
  • pregnant women nearing term 
  • people who are immunocompromised
  • in some cases, food handlers, childcare workers and those caring for immunocompromised patients. 

How long do I need to take off work or school?

Usually, people can go back to work and children can return to early childhood centres and school if they have been free of symptoms for 24 hours.

However, as campylobacter infection is a notifiable disease (see diagnosis below) you will need to check with your doctor first.

If you work in a hospital, rest home, school, early childhood centre, or your job involves handling food you may be required to stay away from work until you have been free of symptoms for 48 hours.

How can campylobacter infection be prevented?

The best way to prevent campylobacter infection is to practice good hygiene, take care when preparing food, cook food well, watch what you eat and wash your hands frequently and properly.

Follow the New Zealand Food Safety Authority recommendations, including:

  • the 20+20 rule (wash hands for 20 seconds and dry for 20 seconds)
  • the four Cs (clean, cook, cover and chill).
    • Clean: food preparation areas, utensils, equipment and yourself.
    • Cook: raw foods well and leftovers until steaming hot. Ensure minced meat, chicken and sausages are cooked thoroughly.
    • Cover: all foods in the fridge, cupboard and outdoors. Separate and store raw and cooked foods so there is no chance of cross-contamination.
    • Chill: store ready-to-eat food between 0-4°C. Any leftover cooked food should be covered and chilled (within 2 hours). 
  • See also: Food safety tips NZ Food Safety Authority 

If your water source is believed to be contaminated, you must boil all water for 1 minute before drinking, making up infant formula, food preparation and cleaning teeth. See also: Water in rural areas (HealthEd, NZ)

Learn more

Campylobacter HealthEd, NZ
Campylobacter Infections Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

References

Campylobacteriosis NZ Ministry of Health May 2012
Investigating and managing people with diarrhoea BPAC, NZ, Feb 2014

Credits: Health Navigator editorial team.