Your Pregnancy Matters

During pregnancy, avoid cold cuts and soft cheeses to reduce listeria risk

Your Pregnancy Matters

Deli meats and cheeses can be sources of listeria because the bacteria spreads easily among food on deli countertops, slicers, and hands.

A November 2022 outbreak of listeria – a bacterial infection spread by contaminated food products – has resulted in reports of one death, one pregnancy loss, and more than two dozen illnesses and hospitalizations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has linked the outbreak to contaminated deli meats and soft cheeses sold at more than 700 retail outlets in 38 states between April 2021 and September 2022. Specific foods under investigation include salami, sliced ham, and mortadella sold in a New York City market.

While most of the recent U.S. illnesses have occurred in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and California, pregnant patients in Texas should be cautious – listeria is known to grow on foods that are sold in bulk and transported state to state.

For example, a 2015 listeria outbreak tied to Blue Bell ice cream resulted in illnesses across 23 states, including Texas. And in 2014, peaches, plums, nectarines, and prepackaged caramel apples were connected to a listeria outbreak.

Pregnant patients are at 10 times the risk of nonpregnant individuals, according to the CDC. Older adults and people with weakened immune systems also are at increased risk.

The best ways to avoid infection are to steer clear of high-risk foods and clean the surfaces on which they’re prepared. Don’t be shy about saying “no thanks” to holiday charcuterie boards or asking how dishes are prepared – being aware can help protect your health and your pregnancy.

Risks of listeriosis in pregnancy

Pregnant patients, especially those with diabetes, or HIV infection or on steroid therapy, are more susceptible to listeriosis, the illness that occurs when someone is infected with the listeria monocytogenes bacteria. These existing conditions weaken the immune system, making it tough for the body to fight infection and putting the pregnancy at risk.

Symptoms can be nonexistent or non-specific, mimicking flu symptoms such as:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Sore throat

While you might not feel very sick with listeriosis, it can have serious consequences for your pregnancy. Miscarriage, premature delivery, and stillbirth risk increase following listeria infection. Bacteria can also be transmitted to the newborn, potentially causing neurological problems or death. Get CDC resources for pregnant patients.

How to reduce your risk of listeriosis

Avoid deli meats and soft cheeses. These include ready-to-eat refrigerated meats such as hot dogs and cold cuts that you don't heat to steaming and cheeses that don't specify they were made from pasteurized milk. The current outbreak has been linked to brie and camembert cheeses. Non-refrigerated meat or seafood products are safe to consume.

Thoroughly wash raw fruits and vegetables before eating. Do this even if you are going to peel them before eating. Cleansing removes bacteria from the surface of produce, reducing the risk of infection.

Clean all surfaces that deli meats and cheeses touch. While you may not be eating those foods, it's easy to cross-contaminate at family meals or while creating a festive charcuterie board.

Treatment for listeriosis in pregnancy

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends treatment in pregnant patients who have known listeriosis, who ate a recalled product with no symptoms, or who were presumed to be exposed and have a fever higher than 100.6 degrees F.

If you have listeriosis and a fever while pregnant, the doctor may order a blood test or stool sample to confirm the diagnosis. Standard treatment for pregnant patients is IV penicillin. If you’re allergic to penicillin, an antibacterial pill that combines sulfamethoxazole and trimethoprim is an effective alternative. Common brand names of the pill are Bactrim, Septra, or Sulfatrim.

Avoiding high-risk foods and practicing good kitchen hygiene are the best ways to reduce your risk of listeria infection in pregnancy. If you have eaten some products that have been linked to listeria infections, don't panic. Talk with your prenatal care provider to determine the best course of action.

To talk with an Ob/Gyn about listeriosis, call 214-645-8300 or request an appointment online.