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Food poisoning in pregnancy

What are the risks, how should you avoid them and what you should do if you fall ill?


Posted: 7 August 2008
by Maria Muennich

Pregnant woman eating fruit
Follow a few simple diet rules to avoid food poisoning in pregnancy

Almost all of us will have experienced the unpleasantness that is food poisoning at one time or another, and, while it's far from an enjoyable experience, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about when it comes to avoiding food poisoning in pregnancy. After all, don't we all know at least one person who had a bout of food poisoning during pregnancy and gave birth to a completely healthy baby, so it isn't all a little exaggerated? Here we lay out the food-poisoning risks, as well as how to avoid them, what to do if you do fall ill, and try to clear up some of the common misconceptions about foods that are unsafe.

Will food poisoning harm my baby?

Food poisoning is a potential risk to the fetus and in the worst cases is associated with miscarriage and stillbirth, but there are many different sources of food poisoning out there, and the actual risk depends on what kind of food poisoning you fall prey to, as well as on the stage of your pregnancy and your general health. In most cases you can suffer a bout of food poisoning and your baby will be completely fine, but you will have to be careful not to suffer from dehydration (particularly when the weather's hot), which isn't good for the pregnancy.

E-coli,  salmonella and campylobacteriosis are bacterial infections which in some cases can cause illness to the fetus.  An infected fetus may suffer health problems after birth including diarrhea and fever, and in rare cases even meningitis. Salmonella and campylobacteriosis infections can in some circumstances lead to stillbirth.

Listeriosis is a particularly nasty form of food poisoning  which can make both you and your baby dangerously ill.  During pregnancy, Listeriosis is associated with premature delivery, and more rarely, miscarriage and stillbirth. After birth, infected babies may suffer complications that range from the unpleasant to the potentially fatal.  While not all that common an infection among most of the population, pregnant women are far more susceptible to Listeria infection than other healthy adults, so it's a risk you should take seriously. Unlike many other food pathogens, Listeria grows rapidly at refrigerated temperatures and the only way to be sure it can't survive is to cook food to 70 degrees for at least one minute. The bacteria can be found in many places including: chilled pre-cooked foods such as fish, deli meats, chicken etc. undercooked foods - particularly meat and fish - pre-packaged salads and coleslaws and vegetables which haven't been well washed.

Simple parasitic infections are less likely to cause health problems for your baby directly, however, do bear in mind that any such infection will deprive your baby of important nutrients at a time when he needs them for healthy development. Toxoplasmosis is one parasitic infection that is associated with health problems if passed on to a developing fetus, with potential problems ranging from developmental abnormalities (including problems with sight and hearing) to miscarriage or stillbirth. Soil (even on uncooked vegetables), undercooked meat and cat litter are the most common sources of infection. A simple blood test at the beginning of a pregnancy can show whether you have already been exposed to toxoplasmosis, in which case infection will no longer be a problem, or whether this is something you need to be cautious about.

Your health

In the majority of cases food poisoning won't cause significant health problems for your developing baby but it can be even more unpleasant for you, as a pregnant woman, than would normally be the case. Even the less serious kinds of food poisoning can make you quite ill when your system is already taxed with the demands of a pregnancy. 

Your body really has enough to cope with right now just with being pregnant, and there are certain kinds of food poisoning to which you are more susceptible right now. What's more, even though most cases of food poisoning won't have dramatic consequences for your unborn child, it stands to reason that the healthier you are, the better for your developing baby. So it's well worth doing your best to avoid falling ill.

Avoiding food poisoning

The main message for avoiding food poisoning is to practice good food hygiene, as well as to avoid certain foods which carry a  higher risk of contamination.

So, what isn't out-of-bounds?

When you look at the list of food you should avoid or be careful with during pregnancy then you might be forgiven for thinking that almost nothing is safe, and in many cases the message becomes confused, with people thinking that being careful with certain foods means that you should avoid them altogether. Often such advice gets passed along from one pregnant woman to another, so you may find pregnant women avoiding something like salami completely, even atop a well-cooked pizza. A friend of mine, for example, recently expressed surprise that I was eating shellfish when pregnant, even though the fish was clearly well-cooked - she'd spent her whole pregnancy avoiding shellfish completely.

Here's a list of some common <a href='/news/article/mps/uan/1452'>misconceptions about what foods need to be avoided during pregnancy</a>.

Should I go to the doctor if I get food poisoning?

If you do fall ill from food poisoning the most important thing to do is to stay hydrated. Make sure you rest and concentrate on your recovery, don't be tempted to push on through the pain. The more ill you are, the more likely the health of your baby is to suffer.

If you are feeling very poorly, if you are having difficulty keeping down any fluids over a 24-hour period (and so are in danger of suffering from dehydration), if you think you may have been infected with toxoplasmosis, listeria or any other serious infection, or if you are suffering flu-like symptoms rather than a simple stomach upset, then you would be wise to go to your doctor.

Bear in mind that symptoms of a serious listeriosis infection include flu-like symptoms as well as stomach upset: a mild fever, headache, nausea, vomiting and aches and pains in your joints and muscles or a mild cough or cold.  As at any other time during your pregnancy, it's a good idea to see your doctor if you are at all unsure or concerned.

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