Campylobacteriosis

What is campylobacteriosis?

Most store-bought chicken comes with a bonus: Campylobacter, the leading cause of food-borne illness in the United States. According to the Food and Drug Administration, this bacterium was found on 20 to 100 percent of raw chicken breasts the agency tested in various food surveys. If you're not careful, it's possible you'll get infected, too.

Campylobacter infections don't seem to bother chickens, but humans are another story. If this germ invades your digestive system, your body will try to flush it out. Within two to 10 days after catching the germ, you may have diarrhea (possibly tinged with blood), nausea, vomiting, cramps, stomach pain, and a fever. This illness, called campylobacteriosis, strikes roughly 2.4 million Americans each year.

Is campylobacteriosis serious?

For most people, campylobacteriosis is little more than a nuisance. Within a week or so, the germ will be gone and your symptoms will be an unpleasant memory. Some cases, however, are much more serious. Within several weeks of catching campylobacteriosis, about one out of 1,000 people develop Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disease that causes temporary paralysis. The infection can also cause long-term arthritis. If your immune system is weak, Campylobacter can cause a life-threatening infection in your bloodstream.

How can I catch campylobacteriosis?

By far, the most common cause of campylobacteriosis is raw and undercooked poultry. A single drop of chicken juice can be enough to make you sick. If many people in the same area get sick at once, the water supply may be contaminated. A few people have caught it by drinking unpasteurized milk or cleaning up after sick dogs or cats.

How can I prevent campylobacteriosis?

First and foremost, you should assume that every piece of raw poultry features a thriving colony of Campylobacter. Here are some tips for handling chicken, turkey, and other poultry safely:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water as hot as possible after handling raw poultry.
  • Cook the meat thoroughly. The juice should run clear, and you shouldn't see a hint of pink. If you have a meat thermometer, make sure the center is at least 170 degrees for breast meat and 180 degrees for thigh meat.
  • All cutting boards, surfaces, plates, and kitchen utensils that touch raw poultry should be washed immediately with soap and hot water.
  • Use separate cutting boards for meat and non-meat items, such as vegetables.
  • Thaw frozen poultry on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator so the juice doesn't drip onto other foods.
  • Throw out any marinade used on raw meat.

Can I protect myself in other ways?

Besides, chicken, Campylobacter likes to camp out in dirty water, unpasteurized milk, kitty litter, and feces. For extra protection, avoid unpasteurized milk and untreated drinking water, wash your hands with soap and hot water after cleaning up pet feces, and make sure anybody in your house with diarrhea (especially children) washes their hands frequently.

What is the treatment for campylobacteriosis?

Most people with campylobacteriosis simply need to drink plenty of fluids until the diarrhea passes. For severe cases, a doctor can prescribe an antibiotic, such as erythromycin or a fluoroquinoline. When taken early in the illness, these drugs can shorten your misery by a few days.

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Campylobacter infections. Technical information. July 2010.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Campylobacter. July 2010.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Bad Bug Book: Campylobacter jejuni. May 2009.

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