You can’t see campylobacter, smell it or taste it on food but if it affects you, you won’t forget it.

What is campylobacter?

Campylobacter is the most common bacterial cause of food poisoning in Scotland and the rest of the UK. It causes a diarrhoeal infection and, although there are more cases in the warmer months, people can get it at any time of the year.

People can get campylobacter infection from environmental exposures (e.g. contact with farm animals) or by eating contaminated food. It is most commonly spread by improper handling, preparation and cooking of raw chicken.

What happens if you get infected with campylobacter?

Anyone can get ill from campylobacter infection, however the majority of people recover fully and treatment is not usually required.

The time taken from ingestion of campylobacter to the onset of symptoms is usually 2 to 5 days but it can be as short as 1 day or as long as 11 days. Symptoms typically last 7 days.

Typical illness is characterised by:

  • Diarrhoea (sometimes bloody)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Occasionally nausea and vomiting

Some people are at greater risk of infection and these include:

  • Those aged over 65
  • Young children

The highest case numbers are seen in those aged over 65, and illness is often more severe and may lead to being hospitalised. Therefore, it is important to be aware of how to prepare food safely if you're in this group or if you're making food for anyone aged over 65. Find out more about how campylobacter affects people aged over 65

In some people, campylobacter can result in much more serious illness post infection. This includes irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), reactive arthritis and, in rare cases, Guillain-Barré syndrome – a serious condition of the nervous system.

How is campylobacter spread?

People can become ill with campylobacter by eating contaminated food, drinking contaminated water, or having contact with infected animals (such as pets and farm animals). In the kitchen, campylobacter can spread by improper handling and cooking of food, or eating something that touched it (i.e. cross-contamination).

Foods commonly associated with the transmission of campylobacter and cases of food poisoning include:

  • Raw chicken and other poultry (most common source)
  • Offal, such as liver
  • Unpasteurised dairy products

One of the most important sources of campylobacter infection is poultry meat – over half of cases of campylobacter food poisoning comes from contaminated poultry. Even one drop of juice from raw poultry can have enough campylobacter in it to infect a person. So it's especially important to cook chicken meat thoroughly, whether it’s in a dish or cooking it on the barbecue. To avoid pink chicken on the barbecue follow our barbecue food safety advice.

Top tip

Never wash raw chicken. It can spread campylobacter around the kitchen sink and surfaces.

Preventing campylobacter food poisoning

Key tips to preventing food poisoning from chicken

Cook chicken thoroughly
The only way to kill harmful bacteria like campylobacter is by thoroughly cooking your chicken. Use a food thermometer to check food reaches 75°C in the thickest part of the chicken. If you don't have a food thermometer, check the chicken is steaming hot with no pink meat and the juices run clear.

Always wash hands in warm, soapy water thoroughly after handling raw chicken
Effective cleaning removes bacteria on hands, equipment and surfaces, helping to stop campylobacter from spreading onto food.

Use different chopping boards and utensils for raw and cooked food
This prevents the spread of campylobacter from raw poultry to cooked, or ready-to-eat foods (like salad). If you can’t use different chopping boards and utensils, thoroughly wash them in hot, soapy water between use.

Defrost chicken overnight in a covered container on the bottom shelf of the fridge
Using the bottom shelf of the fridge makes sure no juices drip onto other foods, potentially spreading harmful bacteria.

Some bacteria, such as campylobacter, love to grow at temperatures above 8°C so it’s important to keep chicken cold when defrosting. Always check chicken is fully defrosted before cooking.

Never wash raw chicken
This is because it can spread campylobacter around the kitchen sink and surfaces.

For other food safety advice to keep yourself and family safe look at the 4Cs:

Under the microscope — why chicken meat is associated with campylobacter

Chicken is a common source because campylobacter naturally survives and grows in the gut of chickens but individual birds show no signs of illness. When an infected bird is slaughtered, campylobacter can be transferred from the bird's gut to the meat.

FSS has commissioned projects, conducted in Scotland, that demonstrated chicken sources were of greatest relevance. It showed that chicken was the largest source of human infection at 52%, followed by 26% for sheep, 11% cattle, 2% for pigs and 8% for wild birds.

The most important source of campylobacter infection in humans is chicken

How should you cook chicken safely? 

Have a look at our simple, easy and healthy chicken curry recipe card for an example of how to safely prepare chicken in line with our guidance to avoid campylobacter poisoning. 

More on this topic


Avoid campylobacter with the 4Cs

Campylobacter can cause serious illness for the over 65s. Avoid it by following the 4Cs when you prepare and cook chicken.


Campylobacter campaign partner toolkit

Support our campylobacter prevention campaign


Causes of foodborne illness

One of our key priorities is to protect consumers in Scotland from the risks of foodborne illness.


At home

Whether you’re shopping or cooking, these tips will help make sure the food you cook and eat won’t do you any harm.