iStock_wash_vegetables-300x199By Elina Pfaffenbach, MD Obstetrician/Gynecologist

Recently, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) released the first medical guidelines for the evaluation and treatment of pregnant women exposed to the bacteria Listeria.

Recent recalls of Listeria-contaminated food products have highlighted the potential for pregnant women to be exposed to the bacteria. Fortunately, most women who are exposed won’t develop a Listeria infection, and in many cases, careful observation for fever or other symptoms is all that is needed.

However, the incidence of listeriosis among pregnant women is approximately 13 times higher than in the general population. It can cause problems for both you and your baby. Although listeriosis is rare, pregnant women are more susceptible to it than nonpregnant healthy adults. It may also spread into and across the placenta, putting their fetus at significant risk. This food-borne illness can cause major fetal and perinatal complications, including miscarriage, preterm labor and stillbirth, as well as neonatal listeriosis and possible neonatal death. People with a weakened immune system are also are at higher risk of developing life-threatening complications from Listeria.

Foods to Avoid

You should be careful about what you put inside your body. Listeria infection is most commonly contracted by eating improperly processed deli meats and unpasteurized milk products. According to the new guidelines, pregnant women should not eat the following foods with a high risk of Listeria contamination:

  • Hot dogs, lunch meats or cold cuts served cold or heated to less than 165 degrees
  • Refrigerated pâté and meat spreads
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood
  • Raw (unpasteurized) milk
  • Unpasteurized soft cheeses, such as feta, queso blanco, Brie, and blue-veined cheeses
  • Unwashed raw produce (before eating raw fruits and vegetables, skin should be washed thoroughly under running tap water, even if it will be peeled or cut)

Listeria bacteria can survive refrigeration and even freezing. That’s why people who are at higher risk of serious infections should avoid eating the types of food most likely to contain Listeria bacteria.

Symptoms…when to see a doctor

If you’ve eaten food that’s been recalled because of a Listeria outbreak, pay close attention to any possible signs or flu-like symptoms of illness. If you experience fever, muscle aches, headache, backache, nausea or diarrhea, contact your doctor. The same goes for illness after eating a potentially contaminated product, such as foods made with unpasteurized milk, improperly processed deli meat or poorly heated hot dogs.

If your symptoms include high fever, severe headache, stiff neck, confusion or sensitivity to light, seek emergency care. These conditions may indicate bacterial meningitis, a life-threatening complication of a Listeria infection.


According to the ACOG guidelines, a pregnant woman exposed to Listeria with a fever exceeding 100.6 degrees should be given a blood test and be treated for listeriosis simultaneously while undergoing fetal surveillance monitoring. Prompt antibiotic treatment may help keep the infection from affecting the baby.

If you are pregnant and think you have been exposed to Listeria bacteria, call our office at (920) 749-4000 to schedule an appointment with one of our OB/GYN’s.