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.

Sick girl

Facts about campylobacteriosis

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

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

What are the symptoms of campylobacteriosis infection?

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. In people with a weak immune system, symptoms can become more severe and even life-threatening.

How is campylobacter infection diagnosed?

In order to determine that campylobacter bacteria are causing your child's illness, his or her doctor will need to take a stool sample and culture it. Since these types of illnesses are caused by many different kinds of bacteria, this is the best way to accurately determine if campylobacter is the cause.

How is campylobacter infection treated?

The illness related to campylobacter typically only lasts a week. So by the time the doctor sees your child there may be nothing else for you to do but wait it out. In some instances, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics such as azithromycin or erythromycin 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.