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It's possible that you've had a food-borne illness called listeria infection (listeriosis) and not even known it. That's because when this illness causes symptoms, they're usually mild and can be easily mistaken for other illnesses, such as flu. Most healthy people exposed to listeria don't become ill, but a listeria infection can be devastating for pregnant women and people with weak immune systems. Listeria infections are responsible for about 500 deaths a year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Prompt antibiotic treatment can help curb the effects of a listeria infection. Prevention is key, however, starting with simple food safety precautions.
Complications of Listeriosis
Most listeria infections are so mild they may go unnoticed. However, in some cases, a listeria infection can lead to life-threatening complications — including:
Complications of a listeria infection may be most severe for an unborn baby. Early in pregnancy, a listeria infection may lead to miscarriage. Later in pregnancy, a listeria infection may lead to stillbirth, premature birth or a potentially fatal infection in the baby after birth — even if the mother becomes only mildly ill. Infants who survive a listeria infection may experience long-term neurological damage and delayed development. Adults over 60 can also be seriously affected by a listeria infection, and death rates may be as high as 10 to 20 percent for this age group.
Causes of Listeriosis
Listeria infections are caused by eating food contaminated with the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes, which can be found in:
Humans are often exposed to listeria by consuming:
Unborn babies can contract a listeria infection from the mother via the placenta. Breast-feeding is not considered a potential cause of infection.
Signs & Symptoms of Listeriosis
If you develop a listeria infection, you may experience:
Symptoms may begin a few days after you've eaten contaminated food, but it may take as long as two months before the first signs and symptoms of infection begin.
If the listeria infection spreads to your nervous system, signs and symptoms may include:
Symptoms during pregnancy, for newborns
During pregnancy, a listeria infection is likely to cause only mild signs and symptoms in the mother. The consequences for the baby, however, may be devastating. The baby may die unexpectedly before birth or experience a life-threatening infection within the first few days after birth.
As in adults, the signs and symptoms of a listeria infection in a newborn can be subtle, but may include:
Diagnosis of Listeriosis
A blood test is often the most effective way to determine whether you have a listeria infection. In some cases, samples of spinal fluid, urine or the fluid that surrounds and protects a baby before birth (amniotic fluid) may be tested as well.
Treatments of Listeriosis
A listeria infection is treated with intravenous antibiotics in the hospital. The sooner treatment begins the better. During pregnancy, prompt antibiotic treatment may help keep the infection from affecting the baby. Newborns who have a listeria infection may receive a combination of antibiotics.
Prevention of Listeriosis
To prevent a listeria infection, follow simple food safety guidelines:
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