Listeria Symptoms During Pregnancy: Why Is This Bug So Dangerous?

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Listeria Symptoms During Pregnancy: Why Is This Bug So Dangerous?

Listeria Symptoms During Pregnancy: Why Is This Bug So Dangerous?


 

One person has died in connection with a Listeria outbreak tied to sliced deli meats and cheeses, according to health officials.

The outbreak, which was announced on Wednesday (April 17), has sickened a total of eight people in four states (Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). All eight patients needed to be hospitalized. The death occurred in a patient in Michigan.

Listeriosis, caused by the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, is the most deadly food borne illness. Although serious illness with Listeria is rare, for people who do get sick, the infection can be particularly lethal: An estimated 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths from the bacterium occur each year in the U.S., according to the CDC.


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Why Is Listeria so Dangerous?

Most cases of listeriosis are caused by eating food contaminated with the bacteria. Listeriosis only causes a mild illness for most people. However, it can lead to a much more serious illness in unborn babies or newborns when the mother is infected while pregnant.

the bacteria typically only cause symptoms in people with weakened immune systems — such as pregnant women and older adults — who already have a reduced ability to fight any kind of infection.

But unlike many other types of foodborne illnesses, Listeria also has the ability to get into people’s central nervous system, leading to particularly serious complications.

“The fact that it has this ability to get into the central nervous system makes it more deadly,” Adalja told Live Science. “When you get an infection in the central nervous system, it’s much more serious than one that’s restricted to the GI [gastrointestinal] tract.”

Once inside the central nervous system, Listeria can cause infections in the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord (known as meningitis), or the brain itself (known as encephalitis). Both of these complications can be life-threatening.

In healthy adults who are not pregnant, eating food contaminated with Listeria usually doesn’t lead to problems. Listeriosis is rare in non-pregnant healthy adults, but the infection is up to 20 times more common in pregnant women, according to a review in Obstetrics and Gynecology. Most pregnant women have no symptoms or problems from the infection. However, the fetus is highly susceptible to this type of bacterium. The infection can spread into and across the placenta. Infection with Listeria — known as listeriosis — is severe and often fatal for the baby.

In the current outbreak, patients reported eating sliced deli meats and cheeses before becoming ill. Infections have occurred as far back as November 2016 and as recently as February and March of this year.

At this time, the CDC is not telling people to avoid eating deli products. But the outbreak is a reminder that people at high risk for Listeria infection — including pregnant women, adults ages 65 and over and those with weakened immune systems — should be cautious about eating and handling deli meats and soft cheeses.

The CDC recommends that people in this group avoid eating hot dogs, lunch meats, cold cuts and other deli meats, unless they are heated to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius) or until steaming hot. People in this group should also avoid eating soft cheeses unless they are labeled as being made with pasteurized milk.

Symptoms of Listeria?

Symptoms may start anywhere from two days to two months after exposure to the bacteria. Healthy adults who aren’t pregnant usually show no symptoms at all.Symptoms in pregnant women may be similar to the symptoms of the flu or cold. They may include:

  • fever
  • headaches
  • muscle aches
  • chills
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • stiff neck
  • confusion

Be sure to contact your healthcare provider if you are pregnant and experience any of these symptoms. Sometimes a pregnant woman infected with listeriosis won’t feel very sick. However, she can still pass the infection on to her unborn baby without knowing it.

Causes of Listeriosis

Listeriosis is an infection caused by eating foods contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. The bacteria are commonly found in water, soil, and animals. Vegetables can be contaminated from the soil. It can also be found in uncooked meats and unpasteurized dairy products because animals are often carriers for the bacteria, though they don’t get sick from it. Listeria is killed by cooking and pasteurization (the process of heating a liquid to a high temperature to kill germs).

This bacterium is unusual because it grows well at the same temperature as your refrigerator. People typically catch listeriosis by eating the following contaminated foods:

  • ready-to-eat meats, fish, and poultry
  • unpasteurized dairy
  • soft cheese products
  • fruits and vegetables that are contaminated from the soil or from manure used as fertilizer
  • food packaged in unsanitary conditions

Complications of Listeria in Pregnancy?

If you are pregnant and are infected with listeriosis, you are at an increased risk of:

  • miscarriage
  • stillbirth
  • premature delivery
  • deliver of a low birth weight infant
  • death to the fetus

In some cases, the infection can lead to complications in pregnant women, including:

  • bacterial meningitis (inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain)
  • septicemia (blood infection)

Infection in newborns can cause the following:

  • pneumonia
  • septicemia
  • bacterial meningitis
  • death

How is Listeria Diagnosed?

A doctor will suspect listeriosis if you are pregnant and have a fever or flu-like symptoms. Listeria is difficult to diagnose. Your doctor will try to confirm a diagnosis by performing a blood culture to test for presence of the bacteria. They may ask you questions about your symptoms and what you’ve eaten recently.

The cultures may take up to two days for growth. Because it is so serious for the baby, your doctor may start treatment for listeriosis even before they get the results.

Complications of Listeria in Pregnancy?

If you are pregnant and are infected with listeriosis, you are at an increased risk of:

  • miscarriage
  • stillbirth
  • premature delivery
  • deliver of a low birth weight infant
  • death to the fetus

In some cases, the infection can lead to complications in pregnant women, including:

  • bacterial meningitis (inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain)
  • septicemia (blood infection)

Infection in newborns can cause the following:

  • pneumonia
  • septicemia
  • bacterial meningitis
  • death

Can Listeria in Pregnancy Be Prevented?

The key to preventing listeria infections during pregnancy is to follow guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The organization recommends that you should not eat foods with a high risk of Listeria contamination when you are pregnant.

Avoid the following foods:

  • hot dogs, lunch meats, or cold cuts served cold or heated to less than 165˚F. Eating at restaurants that serve deli meat sandwiches is not recommended.
  • refrigerated meat spreads
  • meats cooked “rare”
  • raw produce that hasn’t been washed thoroughly
  • raw (unpasteurized) milk
  • refrigerated smoked seafood
  • unpasteurized soft cheeses, such as feta and Brie cheese. Hard cheeses like cheddar and semisoft cheeses such as mozzarella are OK to consume, as well as pasteurized spreads like cream cheese.

It’s also important to practice food safety and handling guidelines. These include:

  • Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly in clean water, even if the skin will be peeled.
  • Scrub firm produce like melons and cucumbers with a clean brush.
  • Read ingredient labels.
  • Check expiration dates.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Keep preparation surfaces in your kitchen clean.
  • Keep your refrigerator at 40˚F or below.
  • Clean your refrigerator often.
  • Cook foods to their proper temperatures. You should purchase food thermometers to be sure foods are cooked or reheated to at least 160˚F.
  • Refrigerate or freeze perishable or prepared food and leftovers within two hours of preparation; otherwise, throw them away.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also conduct routine screening and monitoring of the potential food sources of contamination. They will recall any prepared chicken, pork, and seafood products in the United States if there is any concern of contamination.

 

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