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Listerosis diagnosis.

What is listerosis?

Turn on the news any given day, and you will hear stories about food recalls linked to potential listeria contamination.  From Blue Bell Ice Cream to Nutrisystem energy bars, the recalls affect millions of products all across the country.

But what is this bacterium called listeria? And why is it so dangerous? Jesse Couk, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Piedmont, explains.

“Listeria monocytogenes is a bacterium that lives in the soil and is found in decaying vegetables,” Dr. Couk says. “Ingesting food contaminated with listeria can cause food poisoning, called listeriosis. Most people who acquire listeriosis only have a mild case of gastroenteritis. But for those who do not have normal immune systems, like pregnant women, older adults, newborns and diabetics, the infection can be fatal.”

What are the symptoms of listeriosis?

Listeriosis can cause fever, muscle aches, nausea or diarrhea, but these symptoms are very mild in healthy adults and children. No treatment is required, and symptoms usually resolve on their own within a day.

Adults with weakened immune systems may develop fever, chills and occasionally a stiff neck and confusion, reflecting infection of the brain structures (meningitis and encephalitis), which can be fatal, says Dr. Couk.

Pregnant women may only experience fever, fatigue or body aches, but the infection can lead to miscarriage or stillbirth.

“The immune system doesn't operate at 100 percent during pregnancy, and this allows listeria to invade the bloodstream through the gastrointestinal tract,” Dr. Couk says.  “While brain infection (known as meningitis and encephalitis) is not common, fetal death can often occur as the fetus is particularly susceptible, having no immune system of its own.”

Invasive infection with listeria requires hospitalization for intravenous antibiotics and supportive care.

Have listeria outbreaks become more common?

Listeria outbreaks have been declining over the years, but recalls have been increasing, which may make people think it is more common, says Dr. Couk.

“Listeria has always been there, but now we are more frequently catching contamination before it can harm individuals,” Dr. Couk says. “Ultimately, it reflects on better practices by the food industry.”

How can you prevent listeriosis?

To prevent listeriosis, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends:

  • Washing hands before preparing foods.
  • Rinsing, scrubbing and drying raw produce before it is cut, cooked and consumed.
  • Separating uncooked meat from produce.
  • Cooking meat and poultry thoroughly.
  • Keeping the cooking environment clean by washing counters and cleaning up spills.
  • Storing food safely.
  • Not consuming unpasteurized milk.

For more food safety tips, click here.

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