What Causes Listeriosis in Pregnancy?

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  • Written By: Donna Johnson
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2018
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Listeriosis is an infection caused by the bacterium listeria monocytogenes. Although anyone can contract this bacterial infection, pregnant women account for approximately one out of every six instances of the illness. Common causes of listeriosis in pregnancy include consuming unpasteurized dairy products, lunch meats, refrigerated smoked seafood or meat spread. Poor hygiene practices while cooking can also lead to listeriosis through cross contamination.

Listeria monocytogenes is a very common bacterium. It can be found in soil, water and various animals, both wild and livestock. Using manure from infected animals to fertilize crops or gardens can result in contaminated fruits and vegetables. To avoid listeriosis in pregnancy, women should thoroughly wash all produce before eating it.

Most dairy products available in grocery stores have undergone pasteurization, a process of heating the food or drink to a specific temperature long enough to kill any bacteria that may be present. Pregnant women should avoid consuming any dairy food or drink that has not been pasteurized. This includes raw milk and cheese or any other food made with raw milk. Other foods that can cause listeriosis in pregnancy include soft cheeses, such as queso blanco, Brie and feta.


Lunch meat, hot dogs and raw meat may also harbor this bacterium. Heating lunch meat and hot dogs until they are hot enough to release steam may cut a woman's chances of developing listeriosis during pregnancy. Listeria is also killed when other raw meats are thoroughly cooked. Pregnant women should only eat hamburgers, steaks or other meat dishes that are cooked to well done. Cooked dishes containing refrigerated smoked seafood are safe to eat, but kippered, lox or nova-style fish should not be eaten directly from the package.

Cross-contamination can also spread the bacteria that cause listeriosis in pregnancy. This can be avoided by washing the hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after handling raw meat and other foods that may contain listeria. Plates, cutting boards and utensils used to prepare high-risk foods must be washed, in a dishwasher if possible, before they are used to prepare other food. Raw meat, lunch meat and hot dog packages should be examined for leaks; any liquid that seeps out may carry the bacteria and must be cleaned up immediately.

Signs of listeriosis are similar to those of other types of food poisoning. Fever, chills and stomach problems including vomiting and diarrhea are common. Loss of balance, confusion and even seizures may occur if the infection spreads to the central nervous system. Pregnant women with any of these symptoms after eating food that may have been contaminated with listeria monocytogenes should contact their doctors immediately for a blood test to confirm listeriosis. Antibiotics can treat the mother's symptoms and prevent the infection from spreading to the fetus.



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