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Listeria: Symptoms, Treatment & How to Prevent Outbreaks

Listeria: Symptoms, Treatment & How to Prevent Outbreaks

When stomach problems begin, it can be hard to tell whether it’s from an illness going around or food poisoning. Kenneth Martin, DO, UnityPoint Health, explains listeria infection, caused from the food we eat.

What is Listeria?

Dr. Martin describes listeria as bacteria causing a wide range of diseases, anything from a mild case of stomach flu to widespread infection of the blood and nervous system.

“Listeria is a common, low-level food contaminant that, in large bacterial quantities, causes illness,” Dr. Martin says. “Listeria is common in the soil and decaying vegetable matter, so it’s definitely present in the environment, and it usually spreads by oral ingestion.”

Symptoms of Listeria

Dr. Martin says the most common listeria symptoms would similar to those of a stomach bug (gastroenteritis), including abdominal pain, nausea and/or vomiting and diarrhea.

“Fever may also appear as a symptom of listeria. If a patient is extremely young or old, pregnant or has a weakened immune system, he/she needs to monitor symptoms closely. If more severe listeria symptoms are present, you may need to be tested by your UnityPoint Health provider,” Dr. Martin says.

Listeria Treatment

Most patients with listeria go through a limited period of symptoms and recover without any complications or knowledge of what actually caused the illness. But, as Dr. Martin mentions, these severe symptoms require a visit to your provider:

  • Stomach bug symptoms that don’t improve within a few days of appearing
  • Central nervous system impact, such as change in mental status or seizures
  • Age (young or elderly), pregnant or weakened immune system

“If infection doesn’t pass normally, the first line of treatment for listeria is medication. Typically, the medications we use include penicillin, as well as gentamycin, which is an antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections,” Dr. Martin says.

Listeria Outbreaks

Food preparation and sanitation impacts listeria outbreaks. If you become sick and think it might be from something you ate at a place of business, Dr. Martin says you should take action by calling your public health department.

“There is data collected to help identify and address listeria outbreaks, and we play an important role in that process. Once an issue is identified, public health entities can take measures to ensure the listeria sources have been addressed, and steps are put in place to prevent future events. Foods most commonly behind large listeria outbreaks include processed or deli meats, hot dogs, soft cheeses and cantaloupe,” Dr. Martin says.

Less common foods linked with listeria bacteria include milk, ice cream, caramel apples, stone fruit (such as nectarines), smoked seafood, corn or rice salad, hog head cheese and packaged salad greens.

Preventing Listeria at Home

You can take steps at home to help prevent listeria bacteria, including cleaning and preparing food properly.

“Listeria isn’t passed from human-to-human, so head off infection before it can even begin. Properly wash all fruit and vegetables before eating them, as well as rewash any prepackaged items advertised as washed. Hot, cooked foods are lower-risk, but listeria does have the ability to survive and multiply at common refrigeration temperatures. Be sure to cook all foods to their recommended temperatures,” Dr. Martin says.