Family doctor



CAMPYLOBACTER - a patient's guide


This is one of the most common forms of food poisoning. This article looks at treatment and safe food handling practises to help prevent the illness.


  • Campylobacter is a bacteria which causes food poisoning
  • It is the most common source of food poisoning in many countries
  • Under cooked chicken is one of the main causes
  • The illness reaches its peak during the summer months
  • Symptoms involve severe stomach cramps and diarrhoea
  • The symptoms may continue for up to two weeks
  • It can sometimes lead to serious complications
  • Serious campylobacter can be treated with antibiotics
  • Scrupulous food handling can help prevent infection

What is it?

Campylobacter is an important and common cause of bacterial food poisoning.

It is passed to humans by eating food or water that has been contaminated with the bacteria. It is a common source of food poisoning during summer months.

It can also be spread by infected people or animals.

What are the symptoms?

Severe stomach cramps followed by a serious case of diarrhoea are the main symptoms.

The diarrhoea can be watery, slimy and is usually dark in colour. There may also be traces of blood. The stomach cramps can cause intense pain.

An infected person may feel nauseous, run a temperature, and feel off colour for a few days before an attack.

You may have picked up the bug up to 10 days before the start of the illness. There is an average incubation period of between two and five days.

The stomach cramps and diarrhoea can continue for up to two weeks. A person may continue to carry the infection for up to one month.

Laboratory testing of stools can confirm the presence of campylobacter.

In rare cases campylobacter can cause blood poisoning, a form of arthritis, and brain inflammation.

What can be done to help?

Mild symptoms are not treated and rest is all that's needed to recover. Drink lots of water and dilute rehydration solution, or diluted fruit juice.

Eat a bland diet, e.g. bread, toast, rice, and fruit.

Antibiotic treatment is available for serious illness, and can shorten the period of illness. However, the bacteria is resistant to many antibiotics and treatment is not routinely advised.

The main drug treatment is erythromycin but other antibiotics such as quinolones and macrolides can also be used.

How can it be prevented?

Safe food handling is the best prevention.

Always wash your hands before preparing a meal.

Keep raw meat and poultry away from other foods to avoid cross contamination.

Wash cutting boards after use and refrigerate cooked foods as soon as possible to ensure they are not kept at room temperature.

Under-cooked chicken is a common source of campylobacter. Make sure all chicken is cooked thoroughly. Take particular care with microwaved chicken. Leave it to stand for at least two minutes and do not eat it if it is pink.

Drink only pasteurised milk and ensure water supplies are protected from contamination by animals and birds.

Barbecued pork and sausage have also been identified as risk factors.

Avoid preparing food for others if you have diarrhoea.

Food handlers, health care workers, young children and handicapped people with the illness should stay at home until the have fully recovered.

Future trends

Several studies are being carried out in many countries to find the source of illness and look at ways to prevent the illness.

Getting help

If you have persisting diarrhoea of more than a few days, your doctor will be able to advise on testing and treatment.

A serious case of food poisoning from a restaurant or eatery should be reported to health authorities.

See also:

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