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How To Avoid Listeriosis In Pregnancy

It's bad enough getting sick when you're pregnant but when there's a possibility that your illness could harm your baby? Here's what you need to know about listeriosis so you can protect yourself - and bub.

The last thing any woman wants is to fall ill with food poisoning when she's pregnant, but what if that dose of diarrhoea could actually be something far more sinister? Contracting listeriosis can cause miscarriage and stillbirth, which is why you need to know exactly what this nasty illness is and how you can protect yourself - and your unborn baby.

What is listeriosis?

Caused by bacteria found in some foods, animal faeces and soil, listeriosis is a rare illness. Food poisoning is the most likely culprit, that is, eating food infected with the listeriosis bacteria.

How common is listeriosis?

Compared to infection rates in the general population, pregnant women are far more likely to catch listeriosis. Changes in the metabolism during pregnancy and a suppressed immune system may make them more susceptible to picking up an infection from any germs they come into contact with, including listeriosis.

What are the symptoms of listeriosis?

In many cases, listeriosis will not produce any noticeable physical symptoms. Therefore, it is possible to have listeriosis and not be aware of it. If a person does experience physical signs, they can be similar to having the flu. For example, a fever, headaches and /or mild
aches and pains. Some people will also experience the typical signs of food poisoning (such as vomiting and diarrhoea), but this is not always the case. In extremely rare cases, listeriosis can cause an infection of the blood (or septicaemia), or an infection of the brain (meningitis) or a lung infection (pneumonia).

Is listeriosis contagious?

The incubation period (or the time from when a person comes in contact with the listeria bacteria, to when they become ill) varies widely. The incubation period can be as little as one day, or as long as 90 days, making identification of the food or activity that caused the
listeriosis extremely difficult. If a pregnant woman is infected with the listeria bacteria, her baby is likely to become infected approximately three days after she does.

How can listeriosis affect a pregnancy?

If listeriosis is not treated and if the mother develops the illness in the second or third trimesters, it can lead to miscarriage, premature birth and stillbirth. This is the case for up to 50 percent of babies that develop the illness.

It is also possible for babies to become infected during birth, if the bacteria are present in the vagina.

Babies with listeriosis may develop symptoms including:

•    thrombocytopenia
•    pneumonia
•    anaemia
•    conjunctivitis
•    jaundice
•    meningitis

What are the tests for listeriosis?

Listeriosis is a difficult infection to test for. Because there are few symptoms that are unique to listeriosis, doctors have to look at a variety of potential causes, including viral infections (such as flu), and other bacterial infections that may cause sepsis or meningitis. Ultimately, listeria infection is diagnosed through blood or stool cultures. Spinal fluid can also be tested for listeria. If a baby is stillborn, sometimes bacterial swab tests of the placenta, or the woman's vagina after the birth, or the baby's bowel motion may show the presence of listeria.

How is listeriosis treated?

If you think you might have been infected with the listeria bug from something you’ve eaten, speak to your GP or midwife. You can have a blood test and if the results are positive, you will have a course of antibiotics that are safe for you to take during pregnancy. These antibiotics may be given orally or intravenously depending on the severity of infection. In Australia, listeriosis is a notifiable disease. This means that the Department of Health is keeping a record of listeriosis cases so that local authorities can try to identify the source of the bacteria and try to prevent more people getting the illness.

How can listeriosis be avoided?

During pregnancy you can avoid contact with listeria by following some simple guidelines on how to prepare and store the food you eat, as well as knowing which foods to avoid during pregnancy (particularly if you are unsure how they have been prepared or stored).

Guidelines on what to eat and what to avoid during pregnancy include:

•    Avoiding 'ready to eat' foods such as unpasteurised dairy products, pates, meatloaf products (such as pre-sliced chicken loaf), cooked diced chicken (as used in sandwich shops), uncooked smoked
seafood, smoked shellfish, previously prepared coleslaw and salads (this is especially important if they have been stored in the fridge for more than 24 hours).
•    Avoiding soft cheeses such as brie, camembert, feta, blue-vein and ricotta. Cheeses that may be eaten include hard cheeses, semi-soft cheeses, such as mozzarella, pasteurised processed cheese slices and spreads, cream cheese and cottage cheese.
•    Avoiding dips and salad dressings, which have been previously exposed to raw vegetables, even if they have been kept refrigerated.
•    Taking care when reheating foods. Make sure any leftovers are well heated all the way through. Be aware that microwaves may unevenly heat foods. Therefore, read the manufacturer's instructions and let the food stand to heat all the way through, or use your oven or stovetop to reheat foods.
•    Preparing and storing foods safely. When dealing with raw meat, keep it separate from other foods. Make sure the raw meat is not stored in the fridge where juices may drip onto other foods. Keep all stored food in the fridge individually covered.
•    Wash your hands, knives and cutting boards well with hot soapy water after dealing with raw foods (especially meats).
•    Cook all animal products right through. Avoid medium-rare steaks or runny eggs. Thoroughly wash all raw vegetables before eating them. Observe the use-by and best-by instructions on
refrigerated foods.

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