• By Deborah Balzer

Infectious Diseases A-Z: What is listeria infection?

July 9, 2018

Listeroris, caused by the germ Listeria monocytogenes, is estimated to be the third leading cause of death from foodborne illnesses in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

"We worry about listeria infection especially in pregnant women and their newborns, people who have weakened immune systems, and in the elderly," says Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse, a Mayo Clinic infectious diseases specialist.

"Listeria is one of the few bacteria that likes to divide at low temperatures. That’s why we see this being a problem in foods that are refrigerated," says Dr. Rajapakse.

Watch: Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse explains listeria infection.

Journalists: Broadcast-quality sound bites are in the downloads. 

Listeria infection had been associated with deli meats, hot dogs, and products that are refrigerated for a prolonged period of time. The CDC says dairy products and produce are now often linked to listeria infection including soft cheeses, celery, sprouts and ice cream.

Symptoms of listeria infection include:

  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea

But Dr. Rajapakse adds, "Listeria infection can present in different ways in different people. In newborns, it can present as what we call sepsis, or a systemic infection, or bloodstream infection. This can make newborn infants sleepy or lethargic. It can cause brain infections, blood infections, and make them quite sick overall. In other populations, such as pregnant women, or elderly or immunocompromised patients, the most worrisome form of listeria infection is meningitis, or infection around the surface of the brain. It can also cause bloodstream infections in those populations, as well."

Simple food safety precautions, such as good hand hygiene, scrubbing raw fruits and vegetables, and ensuring food is thoroughly cooked, can help prevent infection.

Women who are pregnant, and those with a weak immune system should avoid these foods:

  • Soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue cheese or Mexican-style cheeses such as queso blanco and queso fresco
  • Hot dogs, luncheon meats and deli meats
  • Refrigerated pates or meat spreads. Canned or shelf-stable pates and meat spreads are acceptable.
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood including nova style, lox, kippered or jerky. One exception is if you're using these products in a casserole or other cooked dish. Canned or shelf-stable smoked seafood products are acceptable.
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