Although the food supply in the Unites States is one of the safest in the world, the way we store, prepare, and/or handle food after it leaves the grocery store can put us at risk for foodborne illness or food poisoning. Some foods can carry harmful bacteria and parasites that can make both you and your baby sick. Pregnant women are in the higher-risk category when it comes to contracting foodborne bacteria, such as salmonella, staphylococcus aureus, E. coli, clostridium perfringens, toxoplasma gondii, or listeria monocyotogenes. Some foodborne bacteria can be more harmful to the mother and baby than others.

Symptoms of Foodborne Illness

Symptoms of foodborne illnesses can develop as soon as thirty minutes or as much as three weeks after a contaminated food is eaten. Since symptoms can mimic those of the flu, it is important to know the differences. If you have flu-like symptoms but they don’t go away within twenty-four to forty-eight hours, that could be a sign of something more serious, such as foodborne illness. If you vomit; have diarrhea more than two times per day; have bloody diarrhea; have a stiff neck with a severe headache and fever; or if your symptoms last for more than three days, you should call your doctor immediately. Foodborne illnesses can be serious, so don’t take any chances. If you have any symptoms, see your doctor immediately so he can determine what is causing your discomfort. If your doctor suspects a foodborne illness, he can perform a blood antibody test for certain bacteria or parasites.

Toxoplasma gondii, or T. gondii, is a parasitic infection that can contaminate food. This parasite can result in toxoplasmosis, which usually causes mild to no symptoms for pregnant women but there is a 40 percent chance that it can be passed to the developing fetus. T. gondii can cause miscarriage, disability, and retardation. Toxoplasmosis is sometimes treated with antibiotics to reduce the severity of its effects. Most often, it is contracted from eating undercooked meat and poultry or unwashed fruits and vegetables, from contamination of cleaning a cat’s litter box, or from handling contaminated soil.

Listeria Monocyotogenes

Listeria monocytogenes is a bacteria on some foods that can cause a serious infection, called listeriosis, in humans. Most people who eat listeria-contaminated foods do not get ill. However, pregnant women are twenty times more likely than other healthy adults to get listeriosis and become seriously ill. Listeriosis results in an estimated 2,500 serious illnesses and 500 deaths each year.

Pregnant women, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems are at higher risk for contracting listeriosis. This foodborne illness is one that can cause the most serious harm to a fetus, resulting in miscarriages, fetal death, severe illness, and even the death of a newborn. If a person has three telltale symptoms—stiff neck, severe headache, and fever—she may have listeria.

Foods to Avoid

Listeria monocytogenes can grow at refrigerator temperatures and can be found in ready-to-eat foods. Listeria can also contaminate other foods, and contaminated foods may not look, smell, or even taste any different than uncontaminated foods. Eat perishable foods that are precooked or ready-to-eat as soon as possible. Clean your refrigerator on a regular basis, and keep a thermometer in your refrigerator to make sure it stays at 40°F or below. These steps can help reduce your risk for listeriosis as well as other foodborne illnesses. Thorough cooking at the correct temperatures can kill the listeria bacteria.

Some foods have a greater likelihood of containing listeria monocytogenes and can put you are greater risk for other foodborne illnesses. Pregnant women should completely avoid the following foods:

• Hot dogs and luncheon meats, unless they are reheated until steaming hot (at least 165°F)

• Soft cheeses such as feta (goat cheese), Brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses such as Roquefort, and Mexican-style soft cheeses such as queso blanco fresco. It is acceptable to eat hard cheese such as Cheddar; semi-soft cheese such as mozzarella; pasteurized processed cheese such as slices and spreads; cream cheeses; and cottage cheese

• Pâtés and/or meat spreads. It is acceptable to eat canned or shelf-stable pâtés and meat spreads

• Refrigerated smoked seafood, unless contained in a cooked dish such as a casserole

• Raw (unpasteurized) milk or foods that contain unpasteurized milk. Foods and beverages state “pasteurized” on the label

• Unpasteurized juices and ciders

• Raw sprouts

• Dishes including raw or undercooked eggs including eggnog, cake batter, raw cookie dough, some Caesar salad dressings, and hollandaise sauce. Check for ingredients on food labels

• Raw or undercooked shellfish or seafood, including sushi

• Undercooked meats, poultry, and eggs

Steps to Keep Food Safe

Since you cannot always tell whether a food is contaminated, it is vital to take important steps to keep all of your food safe from harmful bacteria. To decrease your risk of contracting a foodborne illness, always wash your hands with hot, soapy water before and after handling foods. In addition, wash cutting boards, other work surfaces, and utensils with soap and hot water after contact with raw meat, poultry, or fish. In fact, it is best to use separate cutting boards, plates, storage containers, and utensils for raw meat and other foods. Thoroughly cooking all meat, poultry, and seafood can greatly help decrease the risk of contracting a foodborne illness. To help prevent listeria, reheat all meats purchased at the deli counter, including cured meats like salami, before eating them. Keep your raw foods separate from cooked or ready-to-eat foods so they don’t contaminate them. Change sponges, dishcloths, and dishrags frequently. Always wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly with warm water before eating, and remove surface dirt with a scrub brush. Refrigerate all of your leftovers promptly, and stay away from cooked food that has been out of the refrigerator for more than two hours. Use a thermometer to make sure that the temperature in your refrigerator is 40°F or below and that the freezer is 0°F or below to slow the growth of bacteria. The danger zone for foods is between 40 and 140°F. Thawing meats and seafood can be a breeding ground for bacteria if they are not defrosted properly. The safest way to thaw frozen meats or seafood is in the refrigerator. Pay attention to labels on products that must be refrigerated or that have a “use by” date. Avoid dented or swollen cans, cracked jars, and loose lids that can contain bacteria. The best rule of thumb is “When in doubt, throw it out!”

When cooking meats, use a meat thermometer to ensure meats are cooked thoroughly. Make sure ground meat products are cooked to at least 160°F. Roasts and steaks should be cooked to at least 145°F for medium rare and 170°F for well done. Pork should be cooked to at least 160°F. Poultry should be cooked to at least 180°F for whole chickens, turkeys, and dark meat and to 170°F for white-meat breasts and roasts.

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