Campylobacter are a type of bacteria that produce infections in the GI tract. They are a major bacterial cause of diarrheal sickness among children in the United States. You may hear your pediatrician use the names Campylobacter jejuni or Campylobacter coli, which are the most common Campylobacter species associated with diarrhea. Common ways that a child can get the infection are from contaminated food, especially undercooked chicken; unpasteurized milk; and household pets, most often puppies, cats, hamsters and birds. Infection can also spread by person-to-person contact. The incubation period is usually 2 to 7 days.
Signs and Symptoms
Illness caused by Campylobacter infections includes diarrhea, stomach pain, and fever. Blood may be present in the stools. In young infants, bloody diarrhea may be the only sign that an infection is present. Severe diarrhea can cause dehydration, with symptoms such as excessive thirst and a decline in the frequency of urination. Campylobacter can also enter the blood stream and infect other organs, though this is not common.
In rare cases, complications caused by the body’s immune system may develop. The antibodies made against Campylobacter can react against the child’s body, causing an uncommon form of arthritis called reactive arthritis, a skin sore called erythema nodosum, and a serious condition of the nerves called Guillain-Barré syndrome. With Guillain-Barré syndrome, the child develops weakness that usually starts in the legs and moves up the body.
What You Can Do
If your child has blood in his diarrhea or stools, you should call your pediatrician. Children with Campylobacter infections tend to get better on their own without any particular treatment. Until your child’s diarrhea goes away, make sure he drinks lots of fluids. Rehydration fluids are sold in stores, but can also be made at home. Talk to your pediatrician about how to include the proper amount of salt and sugar.
How Is the Diagnosis Made?
The blood and feces can be tested in the laboratory for the presence of Campylobacter bacteria. This will help your pediatrician give you an exact diagnosis of the cause of your child’s diarrhea.
Sometimes, particularly when a Campylobacter infection is severe, antibiotics may be given. If taken early in the course of the illness, antibiotics such as erythromycin and azithromycin can eliminate the bacteria from the stool in 2 to 3 days and shorten the length of the illness. When your pediatrician gives these medicines, make sure your child takes them as instructed. Over the counter antidiarrheal medicines may make your child sicker and should not be taken if there is blood in the stools.
What Is the Prognosis?
If your child has a mild Campylobacter infection, the illness may last only for a day or two. In other cases, youngsters may recover within a week, although about 20% have a relapse or a prolonged or severe illness.
Many cases of Campylobacter infections are connected with touching or eating undercooked poultry. Therefore, proper food handling and preparation are important.
To prevent these infections in your family:
- Wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw poultry. Also, wash cutting boards and utensils with soap and water after they’ve been in contact with raw poultry. It is important to cook poultry thoroughly before eating.
- Drink only milk that has been pasteurized.
- Because pets can be carriers of Campylobacter bacteria, members of your family should wash their hands thoroughly after having contact with the feces of dogs, cats, hamsters, and birds.
- Wash your hands carefully after touching the underclothes or diapers of young children and infants with diarrhea.
- Children should always wash their hands before eating.
- If a child that attends child care has diarrhea, you should tell the caregivers right away.
- Wash your hands.
- Don’t share utensils.
- Wash and/or peel raw fruits and vegetables.
- Cook meats thoroughly.
- Avoid contaminating foods eaten raw (eg, fruit, salad) with foods that get cooked (eg, chicken, turkey, beef, pork).