What Is Campylobacter? - Infection Caused By Campylobacter Bacteria

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  • 0:05 Foodborne Illness Pop Quiz
  • 1:18 Campylobacter
  • 2:26 Infection
  • 3:51 Symptoms of Campylobacter
  • 5:36 Diagnosis and Treatment
  • 7:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Hartsock

Angela has taught college Microbiology and has a doctoral degree in Microbiology.

You always hear about the dangers of eating undercooked chicken. In this lesson, we will examine Campylobacter, one common cause of bacterial food-borne infection acquired by eating raw poultry.

Food-borne Illness Pop Quiz

Welcome, class. Today, before I begin my lecture, I want to start with a pop quiz. Please close all books and notes. Ready? Which bacteria is responsible for the most cases of food-borne diarrhea in the United States? I'll give you a minute to think.

All done?

Ok. Pencils down. Let's take a look at a few of your answers. Some of you probably guessed Salmonella. That's a good guess, with the United States having about 42,000 cases a year, but there are more prevalent bacteria. The majority of you probably guessed E. coli, that contaminant scourge of leafy greens and peanut butter that sickens about 265,000 Americans yearly. But, E. coli is also incorrect.

The correct answer is the bacteria Campylobacter. Never heard of Campylobacter? Don't feel so bad. Most people have never heard of it, but there is a decent chance you or someone you know has had it. Every year, about 1.3 million people in the U.S. will be infected by Campylobacter.


Campylobacter is a genus of gram-negative, motile, curved, rod-shaped bacteria that cause the most cases of bacterial food-borne infection in the United States. These bacteria have flagella that are used for motility and a gram-negative cell wall, characterized by a thin layer of peptidoglycan and an outer membrane.

Campylobacter is the cause of a food-borne infection. Remember, a food-borne infection is an illness that results from consuming actively growing pathogens associated with food products. The disease symptoms are a result of the growth and metabolism of Campylobacter inside your body.

Three species of Campylobacter are important pathogens in humans or livestock. C. fetus is a major cause of abortions and infertility in sheep and cattle, but rarely, if ever, directly impacts human health. C. coli and C. jejuni are both confirmed human pathogens. Most illnesses are caused by C. jejuni, so from this point forward, I will use the term Campylobacter to refer to C. jejuni.


Campylobacter is a normal member of the bacterial community in the intestines of poultry, like chickens and turkeys. The bacteria don't cause disease in these birds, but they are the primary source of infection for humans. Most cases of Campylobacter food-borne infection result from eating raw or undercooked chicken, or using utensils contaminated by raw chicken. In fact, eating fewer than 500 Campylobacter cells is usually enough to cause disease. Even one drop of raw chicken fluids can contain this many bacteria.

Poultry is the most common source of infection, but you can catch Campylobacter from a few other sources. Campylobacter has been found in raw pork, clams and shellfish. Recently, more and more cases have been popping up that have been linked to consuming unpasteurized milk products.

It is also possible, although less likely, to catch Campylobacter from contact with contaminated pet feces. There have also been cases linked to contaminated non-chlorinated water. Fortunately, large, widespread outbreaks are rare. The majority of cases are sporadic and isolated to only one or two people. Still, about 1.3 million people will get Campylobacter this year, and an estimated 76 of those people will die from the disease.

Symptoms of Campylobacter

So, what exactly does Campylobacter do to you?

After taking two large bites from your chicken drumstick, you realize it's not quite cooked all the way. You've just swallowed several hundred to several thousand tiny Campylobacter cells. The bacteria are able to pass through your stomach, enter your small intestine and begin invading the cells that line the walls of the intestine.

There, the Campylobacter begin to grow and divide. For two to seven days, you feel totally normal, but those bacterial cells are beginning to produce toxins and irritate and destroy your intestinal lining. The toxins and tissue irritation are causing inflammation as your immune system starts attacking the bacteria.

What happens next depends on how many Campylobacter you consumed and how healthy you and your immune system are. For most healthy people, symptoms will be mild and only consist of some watery diarrhea. If you consumed a lot of bacteria or your immune system is not quite up to par, the diarrhea can become more severe, profuse and bloody. You might also have a high fever (over 104 degrees Fahrenheit), headaches, malaise, nausea and cramps.

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