Call it food poisoning, or food flu — whatever it is, if you’re feeling sick as a dog after eating contaminated food, Listeria *might* be to blame.
- The definition. Listeriosis is the name of an infection caused by eating food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.
- The symptoms. Most folks with listeriosis experience a mild case of gut-twisting food poisoning. Pregnant people, babies, older folks, and immunosuppressed people could develop serious complications like sepsis or meningitis.
- The damage. Listeria cause about 1,600 listeriosis cases and 260 deaths in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Around 20 percent of cases are fatal.
- The hype. Listeriosis matters because it’s the third leading cause of death from sickness caused by contaminated food. That means it’s more deadly than botulism and norovirus.
If you’re healthy and have a well-functioning immune system, this kind of food poisoning is probably no big deal. But it is deadly in some cases, so it’s worth brushing up on the facts.
Listeria are bacteria named after antiseptic surgery genius Joseph Lister (weird flex, but OK, dude).
There are actually 17 kinds of Listeria bacteria, but Listeria monocytogenes are the kind we’ll cover since they cause most sickness.
Recent listeriosis outbreaks — whyyyy, queso fresco? 😭 — might have you thinking that Listeria run rampant, but that’s actually not true. CDC stats suggest that outbreak frequency has stayed steady for years.
Most cases of food poisoning involve immediate “hold my hair” toilet hugs and explosive burning poo (*cringe*). Listeriosis isn’t quite like that. It’s incubation period of 3 to 70 days means it can chill in your system for weeks before rearing its ugly head. But most cases occur within 28 days of exposure.
If and when it manifests, you’ll probably be down for a few days with these flu-like symptoms:
Most folks get over listeriosis thinking it’s the flu. But in some cases, the infection could spread to your nervous system. Seek medical attention immediately if you have these symptoms:
- a stiff neck
- loss of balance
If the infection goes unchecked, you could develop more serious complications such as:
- meningitis: inflammation in your brain membranes
- meningoencephalitis: combo of meningitis and brain inflammation
Who’s most at risk?
Noshing on something tainted with Listeria is never good. The risk of serious illness is higher for folks who are:
- older than 65
- undergoing chemo
- diagnosed with kidney disease, cirrhosis, AIDS, or diabetes
- living without a spleen
- taking immunosuppressant drugs
According to the CDC, pregnant people are *10 times more likely* to get listeriosis! 🤯
Listeriosis might not make you super sick, but it can be serious for your bun in the oven. That’s why the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests pregnant people should avoid risky foods:
- refrigerated smoked seafood (like lox or kippers)
- soft, unpasteurized cheese
- raw milk products
- foods with raw egg (farewell, cookie dough!)
- deli chicken or tuna salad
- raw sprouts
- rare meat
- cold cuts and lunch meat
- unpasteurized juice or cider
A listeriosis infection during pregnancy can cause a miscarriage or pre-term labor. There’s also the chance that the baby will contract the infection after birth.
These are the most common symptoms of a listeriosis infection in a newborn:
- disinterest in feeding
- spiking a fever
- spitting up
It can be tough to pinpoint listeriosis in a newborn. Your little one is so very new, which means you might not know what’s normal, a gassy tummy, or a life threatening infection.
If you think there’s a chance your baby has listeriosis, talk with your doctor ASAP.
You can find Listeria — and we’re specifically talking Listeria monocytogenes — in water, soil, and poop.
Listeria monocytogenes are survivors. These bacteria bloom where they’re planted, so to speak, even if they’re “planted” in a place that’s freezing and without oxygen — like a raw fish fillet in your ice box. They’ve been identified in dozens of animals, which is probably how they get passed along food supply lines to humans.
Scientists say Listeria are most often found in these foods:
- raw sprouts
- raw milk
- soft cheese
- cold deli meats
- cold hot dogs (👏 please 👏 don’t 👏 eat 👏 them 👏 raw!)
- smoked fish
Remember, adults with strong immune systems have a lower risk of developing a listeriosis infection. But the way Listeria survive in their hosts makes them a serious public health concern.
How do I know if I have listeriosis?
If you think you’ve developed listeriosis, call your doc. They’ll do a blood test to be sure. Sometimes doctors also order a urine sample or spinal tap.
Your treatment will depend on the severity of your infection.
- Minor listeriosis might clear up on its own.
- Serious listeriosis requires antibiotics.
- Listeriosis that turns into a more serious medical condition usually requires antibiotics through an intravenous (IV) and a hospital stay.
… is worth a pound of cure, amiright? There are loads of precautions that will reduce your risk of developing listeriosis (especially you pregnant people!):
- Wash your hands. Yes, for 20 seconds. Yes, with soap and water. Cleanliness is huge when it comes to avoiding food contamination.
- Clean up the kitchen. Scrub your cooking work surface and make sure you clean your utensils in warm, soapy water. A sanitary space is extra important if you’re prepping meat!
- Scrub raw veggies. A designated brush or sponge will do. Just give them a nice scrub under warm running water before chopping.
- Grab a food thermometer. Or at least make sure your meats and eggs are heated all the way through to kill off bacteria! 🌡
- Be careful with cold meats. Deli meats and hot dogs might seem safe because of their preservatives, but they can still be a breeding ground for Listeria. Keep meat separate from other food items, and cook your hot dogs at high temps. 🥵
- Preggo = no cheese for you. Well, soft cheeses, anyway. Avoid creamy and blue-veined cheeses unless you see labels specifically stating that they’re pasteurized.
- Beware smoked seafood. If you’re at risk for developing listeriosis, avoid refrigerated smoked seafood. You can lower your risk by cooking it all the way through before eating.
Listeriosis is a foodborne infection caused by Listeria. Though rare, it can cause serious complications — including death — for elderly folks, pregnant people, and peeps with health conditions that suppress their immune systems.
Good news? Listeriosis is pretty preventable. Avoid high-risk foods and make sure your seafood, meat, and eggs are cooked thoroughly. Bon appétit!