Food allergens are not all you need to be watchful for today. Foodborne illnesses are also a food-related concern when it comes to protecting your family, such as the kind that comes from the germ Listeria.
Listeriosis is form of food poisoning that is brought on by food that has been contaminated with the Listeria monocytogenes (L. monocytogenes) bacterium. This bacterium can be found in soil, water and in some animals, including cattle and poultry. It has also been found in raw milk and foods made from raw milk. It may also live in food processing plants, thus contaminating a variety of processed food products.
Listeria is a unique germ as it can even grow in the colder temperatures found inside a refrigerator. The only way to kill Listeria is through pasteurization and cooking, yet this does not help when it comes to foods that are typically eaten raw, like sprouts or melons. It can also be found in:
- Uncooked deli meats and hot dogs
- Soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk such as feta, queso fresco and brie
- Refrigerated, smoked seafood
How Serious is Listeriosis?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Listeriosis is the third leading cause of death of all foodborne illnesses, with about 800 laboratory confirmed cases annually. Approximately 260 deaths are the result of Listeria each year. The fatality rate is about 20 percent of all individuals who become infected with the bacterium.
This bacterial illness can be very severe for some people, including pregnant women and their fetuses as well as people with impaired immune systems. In pregnancy, Listeriosis can cause newborn death, miscarriage or stillbirth.
Some people may develop severe infections leading to sepsis (an infection in the bloodstream) or meningitis or encephalitis (infections in the brain). It may also affect other parts of the body including bones and joints along with areas in the chest and abdomen.
Symptoms of Listeriosis
Like many other illnesses, Listeriosis can present itself in a variety of different ways, often within a few days after eating contaminated foods. It may be accompanied by fever and diarrhea like other foodborne illnesses. If a person has invasive Listeriosis, meaning the bacteria has spread in the body beyond the gut area, they may have other symptoms including:
- Stiff neck
- Loss of balance
- Muscle ache
Symptoms of invasive Listeriosis typically begin anywhere between one to four weeks after eating Listeria-contaminated food.
What to Do if You Eat Food Contaminated with Listeria
Contact your doctor if you think you have eaten food that has possibly been contaminated with Listeria and have a fever or other symptoms listed above. Listeriosis is usually diagnosed by a doctor through testing and treated with antibiotics.
If you are not pregnant, do not have a weakened immune system, are not over the age of 65 and have eaten food that is possibly contaminated with Listeria but do not feel sick, most experts believe you do not need to seek treatment.
Pregnant women need to be extra cautious when it comes to this illness. If you are pregnant and experience only fever and other flu-like symptoms, such as muscle ache and fatigue, you should contact your caregiver immediately because of the risks it may pose to your unborn baby.
In most cases, Listeriosis can be treated with antibiotics.
How to Protect Your Family from Contamination
If you or your family members are susceptible to infection, it is important that you know which foods have the highest risk of Listeria contamination and avoid them. In addition, take the following precautions:
- Heat hot dogs and deli meats before serving them to people in higher risk groups.
- Avoid cross contamination by using new utensils, cutting boards and storage containers for different foods.
- Refrigerate leftovers within two hours and use within three to four days.
- Wash hands, countertops, knives and cutting boards after preparing and handling uncooked foods.
- Cook all meats thoroughly to a safe internal temperature.
- Visit FoodSafety.gov for the latest recalls and information on protecting yourself from food poisoning.