What to Know About Campylobacter

Medically Reviewed By Michaela Murphy, PA-C
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Campylobacter bacteria commonly cause food poisoning. They can be present in undercooked poultry, raw milk, and contaminated water. They can cause diarrhea for 3–6 days. Typically, people recover without medical intervention, but antibiotics are sometimes necessary. This article discusses Campylobacter bacteria and the symptoms of campylobacteriosis, which is the food poisoning illness they cause. It also covers how Campylobacter bacteria spread, how you can prevent infection, and when to contact a doctor for diagnosis and treatment. 

What are Campylobacter bacteria?

child carrying platter of raw steaks
Eloisa Ramos/Stocksy United

Campylobacter” most often refers to Campylobacter jejuni (C. jejuni), which are bacteria that cause the foodborne illness campylobacteriosis. Campylobacter bacteria are one of the leading causes of food poisoning, which includes traveler’s diarrhea. These conditions are a type of gastroenteritis.

It is difficult to know how common Campylobacter infections are because most people recover at home without contacting their medical clinician. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that it causes 1.5 million illnesses in the United States each year. 

The bacteria live in the stool of animals and may come into contact with the meat of the animal during the packaging process. You can become ill if you eat raw or undercooked meat or consume something contaminated with Campylobacter bacteria. 

The most commonly contaminated foods are poultry, unpasteurized milk, and produce. 

What are the symptoms of Campylobacter infections?

Symptoms typically start 2­–5 days after exposure to the bacteria and can last up to 3–6 days, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Some people do not experience any symptoms.

Symptoms can include:

Serious symptoms

The CDC says to contact a medical professional right away for these five symptoms of severe food poisoning:

  • bloody diarrhea
  • diarrhea for longer than 3 days
  • fever higher than 102°F (38.8°C)
  • frequent vomiting
  • dehydration


Anyone with food poisoning — especially young children, older adults, and people who are immunocompromised — should be observed for signs and symptoms of dehydration, including:

Seek medical attention for dehydration symptoms.

Learn more about serious symptoms of food poisoning and how to recognize dehydration here. 

How do Campylobacter bacteria spread?

In resource-rich countries, 90% of Campylobacter infections happen in the summer. The underlying reason for this seasonal trend is still an area of research.

The bacteria spread through: 

  • contaminated water
  • contaminated food
  • contact with animal stool  
  • person-to-person contact, which is rare

The most commonly affected populations are children under 4 years old and adults ages 15–44 years.

What are some prevention tips?

Several straightforward practices can help you keep yourself safe from Campylobacter infections.

Wash your hands

To reduce your chance of getting sick, the CDC advises washing your hands with soap and water:

  • before you eat
  • before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • before, during, and after food preparation
  • after using the bathroom
  • after changing a diaper
  • after blowing your nose or coughing
  • after touching your pets and other animals or their stool

Separate certain foods

The rule of thumb is to keep raw meats away from other foods. Use separate cutting boards for meats and other foods, and ensure that you clean them well in between uses. Keep in mind that it only takes a few Campylobacter bacteria in a small amount of food to start an infection.

Cook food to an internal temperature of 165°F (73.8°C)  

Consuming poultry, such as chicken, turkey, duck, or goose, contaminated with the bacteria — or something that has come into contact with the poultry — is the most common cause of Campylobacter infection, says the CDC. When cooking these meats, check the internal temperature before eating. 

This table, which is adapted from FoodSafety.gov, shows the safe minimum internal temperature when cooking meat and poultry.

Type of foodMinimum internal temperature
ground meat (beef, pork, veal, or lamb) and mixtures, such as sausage160°F (71.1°C)
cuts of beef, veal, or lamb145°F (62.7°C) plus 3 minutes rest time
poultry (all cuts and ground)165°F (73.8°C)
pork and ham145°F (62.7°C) plus 3 minutes rest time
precooked ham165°F (73.8°C)
precooked ham from a United States Department of Agriculture-inspected plant140°F (60°C)
fish145°F (62.7°C)
smoking meat*a maintained temperature of 225–300°F (107.2–148.8°C) inside the smoker

* The information about smoking meat comes from the CDC.

Do not drink unpasteurized milk

Pasteurization is heating milk to the point that harmful bacteria present in the milk do not survive. Drinking unpasteurized milk increases the chance of being exposed to Campylobacter bacteria.

Use caution when drinking untreated water

Water from streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes can be contaminated with harmful bacteria, including Campylobacter bacteria. In addition, wells close to septic tanks or livestock and manure are also at risk.

Drink only treated water and regularly inspect your wells for safety.  

Take care when handling animals

Animals, including pets, can carry Campylobacter bacteria and other bacteria. Always wash your hands after:

  • touching animals
  • touching an animal’s food and water
  • cleaning up animal waste or vomit
  • touching animal bedding or toys 

How do doctors diagnose a Campylobacter infection?

If you have been sick for a week and have not improved, or if you have symptoms of dehydration, contact a medical professional. To test you for a Campylobacter infection, your clinician will send your stool to a laboratory for testing. 

They may also order a blood test to check your white blood cell count. 

How do doctors treat campylobacteriosis?

Most people do not require medical intervention because the sickness goes away on its own. Fluids, rest, and minor changes in diet may help prevent a more serious illness.

However, for a serious illness or the spread of infection to the bloodstream, hospitalization may be necessary, and healthcare professionals will prescribe antibiotics.


When you have diarrhea, vomiting, or both, you are losing extra fluids, and there is a chance of dehydration. Drink plenty of water. You may also drink sports drinks to help replace lost electrolytes. There are also rehydration solutions available for purchase at grocery stores and pharmacies without a prescription. 

Other things that can rehydrate you include:

  • Jell-O
  • popsicles
  • broth

Foods that may worsen symptoms

Some of these foods make people feel more nauseous or cause more severe diarrhea: 

  • caffeinated drinks
  • high fat foods
  • high sugar foods
  • dairy products

Foods that may help

When you do not feel well, it is hard to know what to eat. However, nutrition is important when you have food poisoning. The BRAT diet — consisting of bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast — is a bland food diet that is not harsh on your digestive system. It also helps your stool become firmer. 

Learn more about the BRAT diet here.

Medical treatment

For severe campylobacteriosis or dehydration, IV fluids may be necessary to help restore hydration and electrolyte balance.

Sometimes, clinicians administer antibiotics to treat people who become more severely ill or are more likely to, including infants and people who have certain underlying health conditions. Typical antibiotics include azithromycin and ciprofloxacin. However, some Campylobacter strains are resistant to these antibiotics. Your healthcare team can test the bacteria to see which antibiotic is best. 


For most people, Campylobacter infections last 3–6 days. There are usually no complications.

Groups that are more likely to develop complications include children (under 4 years of age) and those who have a serious or chronic condition, such as HIV or another immunosuppressive condition. 

Rare complications, according to the WHO, include:

Death from campylobacteriosis is rare. 

Other frequently asked questions

Here are some other questions that people have asked about Campylobacter bacteria.

Is a Campylobacter infection serious?

Most people recover well from Campylobacter food poisoning. Severe illness is more likely in certain populations, including those under 4 or over 65 years of age and those whose immune system is suppressed.

What do Campylobacter bacteria do to humans?

In humans, Campylobacter bacteria cause intestinal infections and inflammation. The illness is usually self-limiting, meaning that it often goes away on its own without medical intervention. 

Are Campylobacter bacteria worse than Salmonella bacteria?

Campylobacter and Salmonella cause similar infections and symptoms in humans, but Campylobacter bacteria are a more frequently reported cause of diarrhea.

Are Campylobacter bacteria spirochetes?

No, Campylobacter bacteria are gram-negative rods that are spiral (helical) or comma shaped. There are more than 20 species, and not all of them cause illness in humans. C. jejuni is the most common species to cause human illness.


Campylobacter bacteria are a common cause of food poisoning, usually from contaminated poultry. The infection they cause is called campylobacteriosis, and it leads to diarrhea, fever, nausea, stomach cramping, and vomiting. It lasts about a week and does not usually require antibiotics.

Very young children and people with health conditions that suppress the immune system have a higher chance of developing more severe symptoms.  

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Medical Reviewer: Michaela Murphy, PA-C
Last Review Date: 2022 May 25
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