Campylobacter gastroenteritis is a type of stomach infection that occurs due to Campylobacter bacteria. People may refer to it as food poisoning.

Most cases are likely to occur as a result of eating undercooked meat such as chicken or beef or unwashed produce.

The infection impacts the small intestine and causes a range of gastrointestinal symptoms.

This article discusses campylobacter gastroenteritis, including its symptoms, causes, and treatment options. It also looks at ways to prevent the condition and examines its link to pet food and sandboxes.

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Campylobacter gastroenteritis is a common intestinal infection that occurs due to Campylobacter bacteria.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Campylobacter bacteria are the most common bacterial cause of diarrheal illness, affecting 1.5 million people in the United States each year.

The bacteria may be present in the meat or milk of an animal or pass to water or produce through feces or contact with infected meat.

Campylobacter gastroenteritis can lead to symptoms such as:

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that infections are typically mild and will subside on their own. However, young children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems have a higher risk of developing severe illness.

Symptoms of Campylobacter gastroenteritis typically develop 2–5 days following infection with the bacteria. However, this can range between 1 and 10 days.

Symptoms include:

Symptoms usually last 3–6 days.

Campylobacter gastroenteritis occurs when a person comes into contact with Campylobacter bacteria.

The WHO notes that Campylobacter bacteria are present in many animals, including:

  • poultry
  • pigs
  • cattle
  • sheep
  • ostriches
  • shellfish

They can also be present in pets, such as cats and dogs.

The main route of exposure is through eating undercooked meat. When an animal is slaughtered, the bacteria from the feces can contaminate the meat.

People can also come into contact with the bacteria via:

  • raw or unpasteurized milk
  • contaminated water and ice
  • unwashed fruits and vegetables

Milk can become contaminated when Campylobacter bacteria are present in the udder. Fruits and vegetables can become contaminated if they come into contact with water or soil that contains animal feces.

Rarely, the condition is a result of exposure to contaminated water during recreation such as swimming. Lakes and streams can become contaminated with animal feces.

Treatment focuses on managing symptoms and replenishing fluids lost through diarrhea or vomiting.

Individuals with campylobacter gastroenteritis should drink extra fluids to replace those they lose through vomiting or diarrhea.

Generally, antibiotic treatment is not necessary unless a person is severely ill or at risk of severe illness, which includes:

  • individuals over the age of 65 years
  • pregnant people
  • people with weakened immune systems

Although the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture regulate meat and poultry, there are preventive measures people can take at home.

Heat is the only effective method to kill Campylobacter bacteria from foods.

Typically, people get this bacterial infection by consuming raw or undercooked meat. Therefore, they should ensure they cook meat until it reaches a safe internal temperature.

The following are recommended internal temperatures for meat, poultry, fish, and seafood:

FoodRecommended internal temperature
ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal160ºF
ground turkey and chicken165ºF
fresh lamb, veal, and beef145ºF
fresh pork and ham145ºF, plus a rest time of 3 minutes
precooked pork and ham, when reheating165ºF
clams, oysters, and musselsuntil the shells open during the cooking process
scallops, crab, shrimp, and lobsteruntil the flesh is opaque and white or pearly
fish with fins145ºF

Safe food storage and preparation

People should assume any raw meat is contaminated and handle it with care.

To help prevent an infection with Campylobacter bacteria, a person should do the following:

  • Wrap meat in plastic bags at the grocery store to prevent fluids from dripping onto other foods.
  • Refrigerate meat immediately.
  • Wash cutting boards and food preparation surfaces thoroughly and immediately after use to avoid contaminating other foods.
  • Wash produce well.
  • Wash the hands well with soap and water after handling raw meat.

People should also wash their hands after handling pets, using the bathroom, and touching used diapers.

A healthcare professional may diagnose food poisoning based on a person’s symptoms and medical history.

A diagnosis of campylobacter gastroenteritis requires a positive laboratory test of stool, bodily fluids, or tissue.

Some people may experience complications of campylobacter gastroenteritis, which can include:

In individuals with weakened immune systems, the bacteria may spread to the bloodstream, which can be life threatening.

Although very rare, people may develop Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS). This is a condition wherein the immune system attacks the nerves, leading to muscle weakness and, in some cases, paralysis that may last for weeks.

The CDC estimates that an infection with Campylobacter bacteria leads to GBS in approximately 1 in 1,000 people and that Campylobacter bacteria might be responsible for 40% of GBS cases.

Most people fully recover from GBS.

Most people with campylobacter gastroenteritis recover within 1 week. Symptoms may last consistently throughout this time.

Drinking extra fluids to stay hydrated is important for recovery.

A person should contact a doctor if they experience any of the following symptoms:

  • fever
  • stomach pain
  • diarrhea that lasts for 2 days
  • bloody diarrhea

People should also seek medical attention if they show signs of dehydration, including:

Parents and caregivers should contact a doctor if a child develops symptoms of campylobacter gastroenteritis and is under 12 months old.

Below, we answer some questions people commonly ask about campylobacter gastroenteritis.

What is the link between campylobacter gastroenteritis and sandboxes?

Animals may defecate in sandboxes, contaminating the area with Campylobacter.

People should routinely rake the sand and remove any animal feces. They should also cover any sandboxes when they are not in use.

What is the link between campylobacter gastroenteritis and pet food?

Research found that some pet food containing meat was contaminated with Campylobacter bacteria. This may be due to improper preparation or cooking.

Some preventive measures a person can take include the following:

  • Treat all pet food as though it is contaminated.
  • Freeze unused raw pet food in marked containers until ready to use.
  • Defrost pet food in sealed containers in the refrigerator and use the lower shelves so that the pet food does not drip juices onto other foods.
  • Wash the hands carefully after handling pet food and before handling human food.
  • Wash utensils in hot, soapy water to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
  • Throw away food that pets do not eat.
  • Do not let pets lick people’s faces or mouths.
  • Wash the hands after playing with a pet.

Campylobacter gastroenteritis is a stomach infection that develops due to Campylobacter bacteria, which commonly live in animals.

Most cases are likely to occur as a result of eating undercooked meat or unwashed produce.

Unpasteurized milk may also carry the bacteria, and produce can become cross-contaminated during manufacturing or handling. Proper food preparation helps reduce the risk of infection.

In most people, the symptoms will appear 2–5 days after exposure and will resolve within 1 week.

Individuals with weakened immune systems, pregnant people, infants, and those over the age of 65 years have an increased risk of complications.