It can affect anyone, but it is most devastating to pregnant women, infants, the elderly, and anyone who has a weakened immune system. Brought on when food is contaminated with the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes, listeriosis is a life-threatening infection that is considered a significant public health concern.
Want to learn more about this rare but dangerous infection? Read on.
Listeria bacteria are found in wild animals, domesticated animals, water, and soil. Meats, vegetables, and other foods become contaminated if they come in contact with infected manure or soil. Though it can cause severe problems, animals can carry the bacteria without appearing ill, ultimately contaminating foods such as dairy products and meats.
Found in foods such as unpasteurized or raw milk and cheeses, raw meats, fruits, vegetables, processed meats, soft cheeses, and smoked seafood, Listeria bacteria are killed by cooking and pasteurizing. Unfortunately, however, foods such as hot dogs and deli meats may become contaminated after proper cooking, prior to being packaged. Listeria can also survive and multiply in the refrigerator for years in a contaminated factory.
So how do you get listeriosis and are you at risk? Humans get infected when they eat contaminated food. Most frightening is that a pregnant woman who eats contaminated food can cause her baby to be born infected.
Fortunately, healthy adults and children rarely become seriously ill from contaminated food. Pregnant women, unborn babies, newborns, the elderly, and those with weak immune systems are at greatest risk. In fact, pregnant women are 20 times more susceptible than healthy adults to become infected with listeriosis, with approximately one in six listeriosis cases occurring in pregnant women. Additionally, individuals with AIDS are nearly 300 times more likely to contract the infection.
Symptoms of listeriosis vary by age and the individual suffering the infection. For newborns, symptoms may include lethargy, loss of appetite, vomiting, jaundice, rash, shock, breathing difficulty, and increased skull pressure. When present in infants older than five days of age, the infection presents itself as meningitis. Adult symptoms depend on the organ or system infected. Severe infections may cause pneumonia, meningitis (infection in the brain membranes), septicemia (blood infection), or endocarditis (inflammation of the lining of the heart). Initial reactions may include flu-like symptoms, diarrhea, muscle aches, stiff neck, loss of balance, confusion, and convulsions. Mild infections can result in skin lesions, conjunctivitis (pink eye), or abscesses.
If a pregnant woman develops a fever and chills, muscle aches, or a stiff neck, she should see a doctor immediately. With a blood or spinal fluid test, a physician can determine whether the bacteria are present. In these cases, an infection early in pregnancy often lead to miscarriage, and infections later in pregnancy may lead to stillbirth or the death of the newborn.
To treat a listeriosis infection, antibiotics are used. Unfortunately, even with appropriate treatment, some cases of listeriosis are fatal - especially for those at high risk for the infection.
Guidelines for preventing listeriosis are similar to preventing other food-borne illnesses. Thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables, wash your hands before and after food preparation, and keep a clean kitchen counter and refrigerator. You should also be careful to thoroughly cook poultry and meat, including hot dogs. And store foods safely in the refrigerator and eat leftovers within three to four days. Lastly, avoid drinking raw, unpasteurized milk or eating foods that contain raw milk products.
On top of these suggestions, pregnant women and those with an increased risk should avoid direct contact with animals. They should also steer clear of deli meats, undercooked hotdogs, soft cheeses such as feta or Brie, cold salads found at salad bars, and smoked seafood.