Campylobacter

Pronounced cam-pile-oh-bacter

Campylobacter infection is a type of gastroenteritis (‘food poisoning’) that is mainly spread to humans by eating undercooked contaminated meat. It is the most common cause of foodborne illness in New Zealand. People and animals can carry and spread the infection even if they don’t have symptoms.

Key points

  1. Campylobacter infection is a type of gastroenteritis (‘food poisoning’) caused by the campylobacter bacteria.
  2. In New Zealand campylobacter infection is mainly spread to humans by eating contaminated foods.
  3. Most people with campylobacter do not need any specific treatment. Symptoms usually improve in a few days as yourimmune system clears the infection.
  4. Safe food handling and thorough handwashing is the best way to prevent campylobacter infection. 

How is campylobacter infection spread?

Campylobacter bacteria are found in the poo of many animals, including farm animals and household pets. People and animals can carry and spread the infection even if they don’t have symptoms. Campylobacter bacteria is often spread to humans in the following ways:

Eating contaminated food: This includes undercooked meat, especially chicken, or contaminated raw fruit and vegetables. Contamination of food can also happen when hands are not washed properly after going to the toilet or changing the nappy of an infected infant.
Cross-contamination: Campylobacter can spread in the kitchen by cross-contamination from raw chicken meat, including juices from the meat, to other food, utensils (such as cutting boards), food contact surfaces and the hands and clothing of food handlers.  
Drinking contaminated water: Drinking contaminated water is responsible for a number of outbreaks globally, such as contamination of water from sewage outflow systems, waste run-off from grazed pasture and poo from wild birds. 
Direct handling of animals: Campylobacter bacteria are found in the poo of many animals, including farm animals and household pets. It can be spread by handling infected animals and not washing hands afterwards. 

Who is most at risk of campylobacter infection?

Travellers to developing countries where sanitation and food hygiene may be less strict, farm workers, meat processing workers and those who handle raw meat may be more likely to be exposed to the bacteria. Those at higher risk of serious infection are young children, the elderly and those with other serious health conditions.   

What are the symptoms of campylobacter infection? 

The typical symptoms are feeling sick (nausea), runny poos (diarrhoea), and being sick (vomiting). The runny poos can sometimes be bloody. You may also have crampy stomach pains and develop a high temperature (fever).

Symptoms will usually appear 2 to 5 days after exposure and typically lasts 3 to 6 days. Some people will have mild symptoms only or none at all. Others get a flu-like illness first, such as headache, muscle pains, fever and feeling very tired.

Most people with campylobacter infection recover from the illness within 1 week. In serious cases, complications can occur including dehydration and bloodstream infection. Long-term problems are rare, but may include irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis or acute paralysis (Gullian Barre syndrome).

How is campylobacter infection diagnosed?

Most cases of gastro do not require special investigations. If your symptoms are severe or ongoing, or your doctor suspects you might have campylobacter, you may be asked to provide a stool (poo) sample. This can be tested in the laboratory for campylobacter and other germs. 

Campylobacter is a notifiable disease. This means that if you are found to have campylobacter, your doctor will notify the Public Health Service. 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 of a large outbreak. 

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. Also, eat as you feel able – be guided by your appetite. Start with bland food such as toast or rice and small, light meals.  

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are not commonly needed to treat campylobacter infections. They have little impact on how long you are sick or how severe your symptoms are. They may help prevent the spread of the disease by killing the bacteria in your poos. Antibiotics may be considered when symptoms are severe or prolonged, or for people at high risk of complications, such as pregnant women or people with weakened immune systems. 

Medicines for diarrhoea

Medicines for diarrhoea, such as loperamide and Diastop®, are not routinely recommended, but may be considered in some circumstances. They must be avoided if you have blood and mucous in your poos. This can make things worse as it can prolong the diarrhoea and there is the risk of the serious complication, toxic megacolon. Medicines for diarrhoea are also not recommended for use in children under 12 years. Before taking them, check with your doctor whether they are safe for you.  

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 above) 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?

Practice good hygiene

Campylobacter can be carried on your hands so it is important to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after going to the toilet, after changing infants in nappies, before handling and eating food, after handling raw food (especially raw poultry), after gardening and after contact with pets and other animals. Read more about hygiene and hand washing.

Food preparation

Take care when preparing food, cook food well, watch what you eat and wash your hands frequently and properly. Use different chopping boards, trays, utensils and plates when preparing raw foods and ready-to-eat food. If you have only one chopping board wash it well in hot soapy water before reuse.

  • Clean: keep all food preparation areas, utensils and equipment clean. Wash raw vegetables properly.
  • Cook: raw foods well and leftovers until steaming hot. Ensure minced meat, chicken and sausages are cooked thoroughly until juices are clear. Thorough cooking of food kills Campylobacter. 
  • 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) and food safety tips at home.

Learn more

The following links provide further information about campylobactor. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.    

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

References

  1. Campylobacter New Zealand Food Safety, August 2018
  2. Food and water borne diseases NZ Ministry of Health February 2017
  3. Investigating and managing people with diarrhoea BPAC, NZ, Feb 2014

Reviewed by

Dr Li-Wern Yim is a travel doctor with a background in general practice. She studied medicine at the University of Otago, and has a postgraduate diploma in travel medicine (Otago). She also studied tropical medicine in Uganda and Tanzania, and holds a diploma from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. She currently works in clinical travel medicine in Auckland.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team . Reviewed By: Dr Li-Wern Yim, Travel Doctor Last reviewed: 15 Oct 2019