Listeria and Pregnancy

Listeria Pregnancy

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“I’d love some, but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to eat that.” If you’re pregnant, you may be getting tired of remembering which foods to avoid. Of course, as a mom-to-be, you probably want to do everything possible to make sure your baby is protected and healthy, but changing your diet can be tricky. This is especially true for women who are pregnant for the first time. There is already a lot on your plate (pun intended), and learning which foods are safe to eat (or not) can feel overwhelming.

But there’s good reason to follow the guidelines. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), pregnant women are 10-20 times more likely than the average person to get sick from a type of bacteria called Listeria. This number is even higher for Hispanic women. It is rare in the general population and in people with healthy immune systems, so many women may not have heard about it until becoming pregnant.

Why is it important?

Infection from Listeria can occur in any trimester of pregnancy. It can cause mild or serious illness in a pregnant woman, but it can also pass from mother to baby. That means it can harm the unborn baby, causing serious infections like sepsis and meningitis. It can also cause permanent damage to baby’s vital organs, like the brain and heart. Listeria infection can also result in preterm (early) labor, miscarriage, and stillbirth. Because this infection can be life threatening for both mom and baby, the risk should be taken seriously.

What is it, exactly?

Listeria is a type of bacteria that is found in water, soil, and animals. Listeriosis (illness from Listeria) is mostly foodborne, which means it’s caused by eating contaminated food. In other words, it’s food poisoning! Symptoms may be mild but can include fever, muscle aches, nausea, and diarrhea. Sometimes infected mothers don’t feel sick at all or don’t have any symptoms for weeks or months after eating the bad food. Unfortunately, moms with listeriosis can pass the illness on to their unborn babies, even if they don’t feel sick. This is why it’s so important to prevent listeriosis.

How can I prevent it?

So how can listeriosis be prevented? National agencies such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) watch for contamination and issue food recalls when necessary. But the best way to avoid listeriosis is to avoid foods that are more likely to be contaminated with Listeria. Unfortunately, refrigeration does not kill this bug, but cooking and pasteurization do. Pasteurization is a process that kills bugs like bacteria in food, making is less likely to cause disease. As a result, some of the foods pregnant women should avoid include those made from unpasteurized milk. Other foods are risky because Listeria can live in places where food is packaged and processed.

What should I avoid?

The list below contains some of the more common foods that are more likely to be contaminated with Listeria. You may notice that most of these foods are often not cooked before serving.

Anything else?

In addition to avoiding certain foods during pregnancy, it’s also important to practice good hand hygiene and keep a clean kitchen to help prevent cross-contamination. This means washing hands regularly and before eating. It also means washing utensils and surfaces, such as cutting boards and countertops, thoroughly with soap and hot water after cutting and preparing foods. Also keep in mind that the foods listed above should be avoided to lower the risk of infection from Listeria. This list does not include foods that should be avoided to lower the risk of infection from E. coli.

You might not be happy about passing on the hot dogs at your next barbeque or eating your tacos without queso fresco for the remainder of your pregnancy, but rest assured you’re avoiding these foods for good reason.

Mandy Armitage
Dr. Mandy Armitage is a board-certified physician and writer. She is passionate about education, for patients and clinicians alike. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family, reading, traveling, and attending live music events.

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