Campylobacteriosis refers to infection by the group of bacteria known as Campylobacter. The term comes from the Greek word meaning “curved rod,” which refers to the bacteria's curved shape. The most common disease caused by these organisms is diarrhea, which most often affects children and younger adults. Campylobacter infections account for a substantial percent of foodborne illness encountered each year.


There are over 15 different subtypes, all of which are curved Gram-negative rods. C. jeuni is the subtype that most often causes gastrointestinal disease. However, some species such as C. fetus produce disease outside the intestine, particularly in those with altered immune systems, such as people with AIDS, cancer, or liver disease.

Campylobacter bacteria are often found in the intestine of animals raised for food products and pets. Infected animals often have no symptoms. Chickens are the most common source of human infection.


Many industrialized countries have a high incidence of campylobacteriosis. In the U.S., it is estimated that there are 2 million symptomatic infections per year, representing 1% of the U.S. population per year). Incidence in rural areas higher because of more consumption of raw milk.

Causes and symptoms

Improper or incomplete food preparation is the most common way the disease is spread, with poultry accounting for over half the cases. Untreated water and raw milk are also potential sources.

The incubation period after exposure is from one to 10 days. A day or two of mild fever, muscle aches, malaise, and headache occur before intestinal symptoms begin. Diarrhea with or without blood and severe abdominal cramps are the major intestinal symptoms. The severity of symptoms is variable, ranging from only mild fever to dehydration and rarely death (mainly in the very young or old). The disease usually lasts about one week, but persists longer in about 20% of cases. At least 10% will have a relapse, and some patients will continue to pass the bacteria for several weeks.


Dehydration is the most common complication. Especially in younger or older persons, dehydration should be watched for and treated with either Oral Rehydration Solution or intravenous fluid replacement.

Infection may also involve areas outside the intestine. This is unusual, except for infections with C. fetus. C. fetus infections tend to occur in those who have diseases of decreased immunity such as AIDS or cancer. This subtype is particularly adapted to protect itself from the body's defenses.

Areas outside the intestine that may be involved are:

A medication that is designed to kill or weaken bacteria.
Anti-motility medications—
Medications such as loperamide (Imodium), dephenoxylate (Lomotil), or medications containing codeine or narcotics that decrease the ability of the intestine to contract. These can worsen the condition of a patient with dysentery or colitis.
A relatively new group of antibiotics that have had good success in treating infections with many Gram-negative bacteria. One drawback is that they should not be used in children under 17 years of age, because of possible effect on bone growth.
Food-borne illness—
A disease that is transmitted by eating or handling contaminated food.
Refers to the property of many bacteria that causes them to not take up color with Gram's stain, a method which is used to identify bacteria. Gram-positive bacteria that take up the stain turn purple, while Gram-negative bacteria which do not take up the stain turn red.
Guillain-Barré syndrome—
Progressive and usually reversible paralysis or weakness of multiple muscles usually starting in the lower extremities and often ascending to the muscles involved in respiration. The syndrome is due to inflammation and loss of the myelin covering of the nerve fibers, often associated with an acute infection.
Outer covering of the spinal cord and brain. Infection is called meningitis, which can lead to damage to the brain or spinal cord and even death.
Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS)—
A liquid preparation developed by the World Health Organization that can decrease fluid loss in persons with diarrhea. Originally developed to be prepared with materials available in the home, commercial preparations have recently come into use.
Passage of fecal material; a bowel movement.


Campylobacter is only one of many causes of acute diarrhea. Culture (growing the bacteria in the laboratory) of freshly obtained diarrhea fluid is the only way to be certain of the diagnosis.


The first aim of treatment is to maintain a nutritious diet and avoid dehydration. Medications used to treat diarrhea by decreasing intestinal motility, such as Loperamide or Diphenoxylate, are also useful, but should only be used with the advice of a physician. Antibiotics are of value, if started within three days of onset of symptoms. They are indicated for those with severe or persistent symptoms. Erythromycin or one of the fluoroquinolones (such as ciprofloxacin) for five to seven days are the accepted therapies.

Public health role and response

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began a national surveillance program in 1982 to investigate how Campylobacter causes disease and how the disease is spread. A more detailed active surveillance sentinel system, FoodNet ( ), was instituted in five sites in 1996 and later expanded to ten sites. FoodNet monitors the incidence and trends of human Campylobacter infection over time and conducts studies to identify risk factors for infection. The U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts research on how to prevent the infection in chickens. The Food and Drug Administration has produced the Model Food Code for restaurants. Adherence to this Code will decrease the risk of campylobacteriosis.


Most patients with Campylobacter infection rapidly recover without treatment. For certain groups of patients, infection becomes chronic and requires repeated courses of antibiotics.


Good hand washing technique as well as proper preparation and cooking of food is the best way to prevent infection. Also it is important to have a safe drinking water supply free from contamination.


See also Food and Drug Administration ; Foodborne illness ; HIV/AIDS .



Bell, Chris, and Alec Kyriakides. Campylobacter: A Practical Approach to the Organism and Its Control in Foods (Practical Food Microbiology). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1600 Clifton Road, Atlanta, GA, 30333, ((800)) 232-4636,, .

Judith L. Sims

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.