Campylobacter Infection in Children

Campylobacter is a bacterium that can cause a mild to serious intestinal infection called campylobacteriosis. Symptoms often include cramping, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fever.

The Campylobacter bacteria  mostly affect infants, teenagers, and young adults. The CDC estimates that over 1.3 million cases of Campylobacter infection occur in the U.S. each year. However, this is just an estimate because most of the cases go undiagnosed and unreported.

Patients can be seen by Texas Children's experts in Infectious Disease.

Causes & Risk Factors

Campylobacter infection is more common in summer than in winter. A person typically gets the infection by eating or coming in contact with raw, undercooked or inadequately reheated meat, usually chicken. It can also be picked up by drinking contaminated water or unpasteurized dairy products. Another less common source of transmission is contact with infected feces from pets like cats, puppies, birds, hamsters, and others. 

Symptoms & Types

Signs and symptoms of campylobacteriosis typically appear about 2 to 5 days after exposure to the bacteria and may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Cramping
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Blood in the diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

The illness usually lasts about a week but can last longer. In people with a weak immune system, symptoms can become more severe and even life-threatening.

Diagnosis & Tests

In order to determine that Campylobacter bacteria are causing your child's illness, the doctor will  take a stool sample and culture it.  As illnesses of this type are caused by many different kinds of bacteria, this is the best way to accurately determine if Campylobacter is the cause.

Treatment & Care

The illness caused by Campylobacter typically only lasts a week but can last longer. This infection usually requires treatment to resolve faster and to lessen the chance of transmitting it to others. The doctor frequently will prescribe antibiotics such as azithromycin or clarithromycin to ease symptoms and make your child feel better faster. If the illness doesn't go away, you'll want to see the doctor again immediately.

You can't do much to relieve the symptoms of campylobacteriosis at home. If you have diarrhea, it's important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water as long as the diarrhea lasts. Antidiarrheal medicine is not recommended, especially in children for whom it can cause serious side effects.

Can Campylobacter infection be prevented?

In most instances, a Campylobacter infection results from improper food handling or preparation. Even a drop of contaminated juice from raw chicken can cause an infection.

You can prevent the spread of the bacteria by taking precautions when preparing food. Cut all meats on separate cutting boards from those used for fruits, vegetables, or other foods. Throw out any marinade used on raw meat. Cook meat until no pink is showing before serving it. Never put cooked meat on an unwashed dish that held raw meat.

Good hygiene measures can also help to prevent the spread of the illness. These include washing hands thoroughly with soap and hot water after playing with or touching a pet, changing a diaper, handling raw meat, or using the bathroom. If someone in your household has diarrhea, everyone (not just the person with the illness) should wash his or her hands frequently.

Contaminated water and unpasteurized dairy products are two other common sources of Campylobacter bacteria. It's best to avoid both altogether.