How Listeria Can Affect Your Pregnancy

by Teresa J. Mitchell

ListeriaYou can add "heating up your lunch meat" to the list of strange things you might have to do during your pregnancy.

Why on earth would you have to do that? During pregnancy you and your growing baby face a higher risk of getting sick, in part due to immune system issues.

Your immune system is weaker because you're busy growing a baby. Your baby's system isn't even close to functioning at full strength. You'll want to avoid foods that could cause illness and use special care as you cook your meals.

Listeria Facts

Listeria is a type of bacteria found in soil, water, and sometimes on plants. Although listeria is all around our environment, most infections in people come from eating contaminated foods.

It can grow below the "safety zone" temperature, where most other bacteria can't. It grows in unpasteurized dairy products, ready-to-eat meats, poultry and seafood. Fruits and vegetables that aren't washed properly can also be contaminated, such as melons.

Symptoms of Listeria Infection

Symptoms of listeriosis appear a few days to several days after exposure. Symptoms include mild flu like symptoms, headaches, muscle aches, fever, diarrhea, nausea, a stiff neck and confusion.

About one-third of the cases in the United States involve pregnant women. They're 20 times more likely to get listeriosis than other healthy adults.

Infection can occur at any time during pregnancy, but it's especially dangerous during your first trimester when it can cause miscarriage.

It's most common during the third trimester when your immune system is somewhat suppressed. The bacteria can be passed to your baby and can cause mental retardation, paralysis, seizures and developmental problems in the brain, heart and kidneys.

How Listeria Can Affect Your Pregnancy

If you are pregnant and become infected you could experience:

  • Premature delivery
  • Miscarriage
  • Stillbirth
  • Serious health problems for the newborn

Treatment Options

Listeriosis is treated with antibiotics during pregnancy. In most cases, the antibiotics prevent infection to your baby. These same antibiotics are also given to newborns infected with the bacteria.

Food-borne illnesses like those caused by listeria can bring a pregnant woman to her knees, literally. Here's how you can protect yourself and baby-to-be from those pesky, little critters.

Making Foods Safer

Commercially prepared meat salads can be contaminated. Make your own at home using good food safety preparation.

Meat spreads like pâtés can be eaten if they're canned and are shelf-stable (they're safe to store at room temperatures before opening). Hold off on the ones you find in the refrigerator section at the store until after you're baby arrives.

Deli meats can have high levels of listeria even when they're fresh and cold out of the refrigerator. To safely eat prepared meats, first heat them to steaming hot.

Soft cheese can be made from unpasteurized milk. Check the label. If the milk isn't pasteurized, don't buy it. Ricotta is an exception. The heating it receives during processing exceeds the requirements for pasteurization.

Refrigerated smoked seafood, such as "nova-style," "lox," "kippered," "smoked," or "jerky." Enjoy these as an ingredient in a cooked dish such as a casserole or omelet. It's safe to eat canned fish or shelf-stable smoked seafood.

Unpasteurized milk and juices: Avoid raw milk and juices.

Fruits and vegetables, especially those grown with a manure fertilizer, can harbor listeria. Remove the risk by washing under running water before you eat them.

Protect Yourself in Five Steps

You've eliminated the listeria risk food from your diet. You can take precautions to make the food your family eats safer. These five steps can protect you and your baby from food-borne illness.
1. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before preparing and eating food, after using the bathroom or playing with pets.

2. Wash the cutting board, dishes, utensils and counter tops with soap and hot water.

3. Rinse fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water.

4. Cook foods to the recommended safe temperature to kill bacteria. There are reference charts online as well as on the packages of meat from the grocery store.

5. Chill foods properly. Your fridge thermometer should register 40°. Discard any food that sits at room temperature for more than two hours.

Which risky foods do you enjoy? Now that you know how listeria can affect your pregnancy, will you change your eating habits?