Listeriosis in pregnancy

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Philippe Gloaguen
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Listeriosis in pregnancy

Listeriosis is a bacterial disease caused by germs that may be present in the soil, in plants and in many animal species. The microorganism that causes the infection (Listeria monocytogene) is present in the normal intestinal flora of healthy individuals; a decrease in gastric acidity and other changes in gastrointestinal functions can increase the risk of contracting the disease. How to diagnose and treat listeriosis in pregnancy?





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It has been estimated that about one third of cases of listeriosis are diagnosed in pregnant women due to hormonal change which causes an increase in the sensitivity of the immune system towards the germ. According to American sources, the risk of a pregnant woman contracting the infection is about 20 times higher than that of healthy adults in general. In most cases, the transmission of the disease occurs with food: the germ is very widespread in the environment and it has also been ascertained that it tends to proliferate in refrigerated foods. Soil, forage, water and mud are its main reservoirs. Listeria can potentially be present in all raw foods so it's important to make sure you cook them well to destroy the germ.



Listeriosis fetus

Listeriosis can be very dangerous if contracted during pregnancy. Infection can be transmitted to the fetus through the placenta even if the mother does not show any obvious signs of the disease (often the infection is asymptomatic), furthermore the passage can take place when the woman gives birth through the birth canal.

Listeriosis in pregnancy symptoms

The infection occurs frequently in the third trimester of pregnancy and can cause symptoms very similar to those of the flu: fever, muscle aches, general malaise, lower back pain sometimes accompanied by diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.

The severity of the mother's symptoms may vary but the infection does it involves risks especially for the fetus: meningitis, septicemia, premature birth and abortion are the most serious.

Listeriosis in pregnancy examinations

Generally, listeriosis is diagnosed with a blood or spinal cord test that looks for the presence of the bacterium responsible for the infection, i.e. the bacterium of the Listeria monocytogenes. An examination of the amniotic fluid or the placenta in the early stages of pregnancy may also be effective.

Listeriosis in pregnancy therapy

Therapy consists of the administration of antibiotics which are not always effective in preventing the infection from being transmitted to the fetus.

In fact, if the pregnancy ends positively despite the disease, the infection can be transmitted to the newborn at the time of delivery. In this case we speak of neonatal listeriosis which can manifest itself with septicemia, respiratory failure, skin lesions, meningitis and abscesses spread to many organs including the liver, spleen, adrenal glands and lungs but can even cause the death of the baby.

Read also: Toxoplasmosis, what it is and how it is treated

What to avoid

During pregnancy it is necessary to take food safety precautions which represent the only valid defense against the risks deriving from infection. For example, it is important to eat meat only if you are sure that it is properly cooked and dairy products only if pasteurized. It is also advisable to avoid any contact with potentially infected materials and animals.

These are the potentially dangerous foods:

  • cheeses, especially the fresh and soft ones;
  • milk, the one in powder, raw and badly pasteurized;
  • meat, especially raw meat, sausages, but also cooked and raw poultry;
  • smoked fish;
  • raw vegetables, not sufficiently washed.

Here are some important tips:

  • carefully wash raw meats such as chicken, beef and pork;
  • wash and cook the vegetables before consuming them;
  • carefully wash hands, knives and other utensils used with potentially dangerous foods (vegetables and raw meats);
  • reheat leftovers to a high temperature before consuming them.

To avoid the risks especially during pregnancy it is advisable therefore avoid the consumption of:

  • unpasteurized raw milk;
  • some types of cheeses, such as soft cheeses, but also fresh flaked cheeses and those obtained from raw milk. Semi-hard and hard cheeses such as Grana Padano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano and Tuscan are quite safe.
  • pate and chilled meat and cheese creams
  • hot dogs, hamburgers and ready-to-eat foods if not heated to high temperatures;
  • chilled smoked fish.
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