This sheet talks about exposure to or having Listeria infection (listeriosis) in a pregnancy and while breastfeeding. This information should not take the place of medical care and advice from your healthcare provider.
What is listeriosis?
Listeriosis is an infection caused by Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, often called just Listeria. Listeriosis is typically caused by eating food that has been contaminated with Listeria. Listeria can be found in your home, in restaurants and other places such as the grocery store or food processing plants. Food with Listeria can introduce the infection into the refrigerator which can spread to other foods. Listeria can continue to live in cold temperatures, such as in the refrigerator, but the chance for spreading can be slowed if the refrigerator is kept at a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.
Some of the foods that are more likely to be contaminated with Listeria include unpasteurized (raw) milk, uncooked meat and fish, uncooked vegetables, lunch meat and soft cheeses. Listeria outbreaks can also occur in cantaloupes.
Who is at risk for listeriosis?
The people most at risk for listeriosis include people who are pregnant, young children, adults over the age of 60, and people with weakened immune systems. Following some simple food safety guidelines can reduce the chance of listeriosis.
What precautions should I take to avoid the infection?
To decrease the risk of listeriosis and other food-borne illness in all individuals:
- Do not drink unpasteurized milk (also called raw milk) or eat any foods made with unpasteurized milk.
- Thoroughly cook raw foods from animal sources.
- Heat foods to at least 165°F (to steaming), to kill the bacterium.
- Wash raw vegetables and fruit, even if you plan to peel them (to remove skin).
- Separate uncooked meats from cooked meats and vegetables.
- Wash your hands, cutting boards, knives, counters, and sinks after contact with uncooked foods.
- Consume ready-to-eat foods as soon as possible.
- Keep your refrigerator at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius).
- Clean your refrigerator regularly.
People who are pregnant should take additional precautions to decrease the risk of listeriosis:
- Do not eat soft cheeses (such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses and Mexican-style cheeses such as queso blanco, queso fresco and Panela) unless they have labels stating that they are made from pasteurized milk. However, it should be noted that some Mexican style cheeses made from pasteurized milk have been a source of Listeria infections, possibly due to the cheese making process.
- Reheat, to at least 165°F / to steaming, any leftovers, ready-to-eat foods, hot dogs, cold cuts, deli meat, frozen vegetables, and frozen prepared foods.
- Take care to not get the juice of deli meats and hot dogs on other foods/surfaces and wash your hands after handling deli meats and hot dogs.
- Do not eat refrigerated hummus, pâté, meat spreads or refrigerated smoked seafood, unless it is an ingredient in a fully cooked dish (like a casserole).
- Avoid ready to eat salads.
How do I know if I’ve been infected with Listeria?
Not everyone affected with Listeria will develop symptoms. Symptoms of listeriosis range from showing no symptoms to having diarrhea, fever, muscle pain, joint pain, headache, stiff neck, backache, chills, sensitivity to bright light, and/or sore throat with fever and swollen glands. These symptoms can begin days to weeks after eating contaminated food. A blood test can confirm whether you have been infected with listeriosis. If you have eaten contaminated food and do not have symptoms, some experts feel no special testing or treatment is needed. Be sure to discuss this with your healthcare provider.
How can I find out if my baby has been infected with Listeria during my pregnancy?
An ultrasound to look at the baby can be used to check for an enlarged heart, thickened bowel, and increased thickness of the stomach walls, which may occur in some babies infected with Listeria. A blood test can also be performed on the baby after birth to detect whether the baby has been infected with Listeria.
Does having/getting listeriosis increase the chance for miscarriage?
Miscarriage can occur in any pregnancy. There is an increased chance of miscarriage when infection occurs in the first trimester of pregnancy. Infections after the first trimester are associated with a lower chance of pregnancy loss.
Does having/getting listeriosis increase the chance of birth defects?
Every pregnancy starts with a 3-5% chance of having a birth defect. This is called the background risk. Listeriosis infection has not been linked to an increased chance of birth defects.
Does Listeria cause other complications for pregnancy?
Pregnancies affected by or exposed to Listeria can have an increased chance of infection in the uterus, preterm delivery (delivery before 37 weeks of pregnancy) and in the most severe infection, the possibility of stillbirth.
Does having/getting listeriosis in pregnancy cause long-term problems?
Listeriosis during pregnancy can also increase the chance for serious health problems for the newborn. Newborn babies infected with Listeria can develop either early onset or late onset listeriosis. Early onset listeriosis develops 1-2 days after birth, and the baby often has signs of a serious bacterial infection. Late onset listeriosis occurs 1-2 weeks after birth, and usually includes symptoms of meningitis ( a condition where there are areas of swelling around the brain and spinal cord in the baby). If not treated quickly with antibiotics, the effects of meningitis can lead to long-term problems for some children. Late onset listeriosis is most likely related to Listeria present in the mother’s birth canal.
Not all babies who are exposed to listeriosis during pregnancy will have problems. Early diagnosis and treatment with high doses of antibiotics might prevent infection of the fetus.
Are there any treatments for listeriosis during pregnancy?
Large doses of antibiotics have been recommended to treat listeriosis during pregnancy. Such therapy has been successful, leading to lower incidences of preterm deliveries and stillbirths. Your healthcare providers will talk with you about the right treatment for your pregnancy.
Can I breastfeed with listeriosis?
It is not clear if Listeria passes through breastmilk. It appears that if there is a chance, it is considered to be low. If you have been diagnosed with listeria and are breastfeeding, talk to your healthcare provider or your child’s pediatrician about this and all your breastfeeding questions.
I was exposed to Listeria. Can it make it harder for me to get my partner pregnant or increase the chance of birth defects?
There is no evidence linking a father’s or sperm donor’s exposure to Listeria with a higher chance of infection during pregnancy. In general, exposures that fathers and sperm donors have are unlikely to increase risks to a pregnancy. For more information, please see the MotherToBaby fact sheet on Paternal Exposures at https://mothertobaby.org/fact-sheets/paternal-exposures-pregnancy/pdf/.
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OTIS/MotherToBaby encourages inclusive and person-centered language. While our name still contains a reference to mothers, we are updating our resources with more inclusive terms. Use of the term mother or maternal refers to a person who is pregnant. Use of the term father or paternal refers to a person who contributes sperm.