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I’m 30 weeks pregnant with baby #6. Last weekend, I innocently ate a few slices of turkey lunch meat while I was at my sister’s house. Almost as soon as it had gone down the hatch, I remembered the risks of listeria in pregnancy — a bacteria that can lurk in processed meats. While most of us strive for a healthy pregnancy, many moms are unaware of the risks posed by eating certain, seemingly-harmless foods. Let’s discuss listeria in pregnancy, including foods to avoid, symptoms of listeria exposure, and what to do next if exposure has occurred.
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What is Listeria?
Listeria is a harmful bacteria that can be found in ready-to-eat foods such as processed meats and dairy. Listeria is unique among foodborne bacteria because it grows at refrigerator temperatures. When eaten, it can cause an illness known as listeriosis (1).
What are the risks of Listeria in pregnancy?
The CDC estimates that about 1,600 people get sick from Listeria each year, and about 260 people die. Unfortunately, pregnant women and their unborn babies are 10 times more likely to develop Listeriosis (2). While the illness is often less serious for mom, it can have serious consequences for her unborn baby including miscarriage, preterm labor, and stillbirth (3).
What foods should I avoid during pregnancy?
Pregnant women are advised to avoid eating foods that are more likely to be contaminated with listeria. Check with your doctor or midwife for a complete list. Foods to avoid include (5):
- Hot dogs, lunch meats, cold cuts (Note: It may be OK to eat these foods if you heat them until steaming hot, about 165°F)
- Meat spreads
- Refrigerated smoked seafood
- Unpasteurized or raw milk
- Unpasteurized cheeses such as feta, queso blanco, brie, and blue-veined cheeses
- Unwashed fruits and vegetables
What are the symptoms of Listeria in pregnancy?
Symptoms of a listeria infection often begin with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The illness may also include flu-like symptoms such as fever (temperature greater than 100.6°F), muscle aches, headache, and a stiff neck (2,4). Listeriosis can develop anywhere from 2 days – 2 months after exposure. Thus, women are encouraged to monitor themselves for symptoms during that entire time period (4).
How do I test for and treat Listeria in pregnancy?
Your doctor or midwife will test for listeria exposure by obtaining and culturing a blood sample. According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the recommended treatment for listeriosis is a high dose of IV ampicillin for at least 14 days (4). Discuss testing and treatment with your healthcare provider to determine the specifics of their policies.
How do I know if I need to go in to my doctor?
After I ate the lunch meat in the incident described above, I experienced 3 days of nausea and some mild diarrhea. I was concerned and called my doctor to discuss whether or not I should come in for a blood test. If you are concerned about a possible listeria exposure, I suggest that you likewise reach out to your doctor or midwife and seek their medical advice. This blog post is informational only and should NOT be taken as medical advice!
Since I didn’t have a fever, my doctor encouraged me to continue monitoring my symptoms and to call back if I developed other symptoms like a headache or sore neck. Again, check with your doctor to discuss your particular situation.
ACOG provides the following treatment guidelines for healthcare providers. These guidelines are specific to women who have had a possible exposure to listeria in pregnancy (4).
Exposure to Listeria in pregnancy can be a scary experience. It’s best to try and prevent exposure altogether by avoiding foods that are more likely to contain listeria. Continue to learn all you can to nurture a safe and healthy pregnancy. Consider participating in a high-quality natural childbirth class as a source of trusted information. Good luck as you prepare for an amazing pregnancy and birth!
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(1) U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2016). Food Safety for Moms-To-Be: While You’re Pregnant – Listeria. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/HealthEducators/ucm083320.htm
(2) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Listeria: People at Risk – Pregnant Women and Newborns. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/listeria/risk-groups/pregnant-women.html
(3) Simkin, P., Whalley, J., Keppler, A., Durham, J., & Bolding, A. (2010). Pregnancy, childbirth, and the newborn: The complete guide. Minnetonka, MN: Meadowbrook Press, 121.
(4) American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2014). Management of Pregnant Women with Presumptive Exposure to Listeria monocytogenes. Retrieved from http://www.acog.org/Resources-And-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Obstetric-Practice/Management-of-Pregnant-Women-With-Presumptive-Exposure-to-Listeria-monocytogenes
(5) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Listeria: Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/listeria/prevention.html