Campylobacter jejuni

This is the most common type of food poisoning which affects people in many countries around the world. The campylobacter bacteria cause a range of gastrointestinal illnesses as well as food poisoning but it is more commonly known for causing food poisoning.

Campylobacter food poisoning affects anybody but there are certain groups of people who are particularly vulnerable to this illness. These include children, the elderly and anyone who has a weak immune system.

It occurs as a result of eating foods which have been contaminated by these bacteria. These bacteria do not grow within food but are transmitted to the human body via consumption of this food. Once there they cause an extremely unpleasant disease.

This illness is also known as ‘campylobacteriosis’.

The Campylobacter bacteria

These bacteria have a spiral shape and are classed as a pathogenic type of bacteria. This means that they act as a type of ‘germ’which causes disease in its surrounding environment.

In this case the surrounding environment is the human gastrointestinal tract.

Foods which contain the campylobacter bacteria

The worst offender is chicken but it also found in other type of poultry such as turkey, duck and goose. It also occurs in these types of foods:

  • Red meat
  • Pork
  • Lamb
  • Offal, e.g. liver
  • Shellfish
  • Eggs
  • Fresh fruit and vegetables (unwashed)

These bacteria are also found within unpasteurised milk or unchlorinated water.

Causes of campylobacter food poisoning

There are several ways in which this bacteria causes food poisoning. These ways or ‘methods of transmission’ refer to how the bacteria get into the human body and cause an infection.

The most obvious method is through eating contaminated food or drinking infected water.

Other methods include a failure to wash the hands after coming into contact with infected faeces and contact with infected birds and animals. This often occurs after touching or stroking an infected pet, e.g. a dog or contact with its infected faeces.

Another factor is person to person contact.

These bacteria are able to access the gastrointestinal tract where they invade the cells within the lining of the intestines. They are aided in this by the release of a toxin. This toxin prevents the cells from reacting to this attack by stopping them from dividing which would trigger a response from the immune system.

This gives the bacteria a short amount of survival time within the cells which enables it to cause damage within that area.

Symptoms of campylobacter food poisoning

The ‘onset’of these symptoms refers to the period of time between initial contact with the bacteria and the appearance of the symptoms.

This is also known as the ‘incubation period’.

With campylobacter food poisoning the incubation period is usually around 2 to 5 days but there are exceptions to this. In some cases the symptoms appear after little more than 2 days or as long as 10 days.

This illness usually lasts for a week but may persist for up to 3 weeks in severe cases.

Note: the symptoms reappear in a small percentage of cases.

Symptoms of this food poisoning include:

  • Diarrhoea (this may be bloody)
  • Fever
  • Abdominal pains
  • Muscle aches
  • Headache

Vomiting is another symptom although this tends to be rare. Some people do experience nausea and vomiting but the most frequent symptom is diarrhoea. This can be severe and often bloody.

Diagnosing campylobacter food poisoning

A stool sample (sample of faeces) will determine if you have campylobacter food poisoning. It is a simple test in which you provide a sample of your stool which is then sent away to a laboratory for analysis.

The results of this analysis will confirm or reject this diagnosis.

Treatment for campylobacter food poisoning

This involves plenty of rest and fluids.

It is important that you consume plenty of fluids to replace those lost during this illness. But what is equally important is replacing those vitamins and minerals lost due to severe diarrhoea and/or vomiting.

These electrolytes as they are known can easily be replaced. There are ‘oral rehydration therapy’ sachets you can purchase –either at a local pharmacy or online which you add to water or some other fluid. These are a quick and easy way of topping up your electrolyte levels.

This works with mild cases but if you have a severe form of food poisoning then intravenous fluids will be required. These are administered in hospital.

Hospital treatment is only required for people who are considered a ‘high risk’group, for example, the very young, the very old and those people who have a weakened immune system.

Antibiotics can also help although there is evidence to show that some strains of bacteria have developed a resistance to them. However they are useful, particularly in severe cases and significantly shorten the period of illness.

Most people usually recover after a week.

Complications of campylobacter food poisoning

Most cases clear up without any problems but there are a few situations in which people experience a relapse. This means a reoccurrence of the symptoms or long term complications such as ‘Guillain-Barre Syndrome’.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a disease which affects the nervous system and may leave some people with permanent damage.

This is discussed in more detail in our complications of food poisoning section.

Another complication is ‘Miller Fisher Syndrome’. This is another neurological disorder which affects the nerves within the head rather than the rest of the body (as in Guillain-Barre Syndrome).

Then there is a chronic condition called reactive arthritis or ‘Reiter’s Syndrome’ which commonly affects the knee joints and the bottom of the spine. This occurs in people who have a marked genetic tendency, for example they have a particular antigen which predisposes them towards this disorder.

This is also discussed in more detail in our complications of food poisoning section.

Prevention of campylobacter food poisoning

Is it possible to prevent campylobacter food poisoning?

Yes, as long as you take a few of the following precautions which include:

  • Washing food and vegetables before use. This applies to foods which have been purchased at an outdoor market.
  • Ensure that meat and poultry have been properly defrosted before use. Also ensure that they are cooked through before consumption.
  • Avoid unpasteurised milk
  • Prevent cooked foods coming into contact with cooked foods. This is known as ‘cross contamination.
  • Wash your hands before and after handling food; visiting the bathroom and after stroking or touching a pet or farm animal.
  • Consider buying irradiated foods. These are foods which undergo a form of heat treatment which kills off any bacteria without affecting the taste or texture of the food.

Find out more about irradiated foods in our preventing food poisoning section.

Food Poisoning Guide

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