Listeria symptoms can sometimes take weeks to develop. Here are some tips on protecting yourself and your family—plus what to do if you get sick and can’t get expert help.
Every so often, listeria gets in the news because of an outbreak found in commercial produce. The latest one is in peaches and nectarines at certain grocery stores, including Kroger, Walmart, and Whole Foods. (Note: This post was published in 2014. Click here to check the latest food recalls for various causes.)
Recalls happen periodically, and you should take them seriously. The one in cantaloupes in 2011 killed 33 and caused one miscarriage, and that was with a very quick, very publicized recall.
One of the problems is the listeria symptoms can be pretty generalized in most people, and sometimes it can take as long as 70 days from infection to symptoms. Meantime, a lot of people could have eaten the contaminated food.
Other than depending on recalls, there are precautions you can take, whether you buy your produce or are living off the land. And of course I’ll tell you what to do if you get the symptoms and can’t get expert help.
Listeriosis is the name of the disease, but it’s better known to most of us as just plain listeria—after the bacterium that causes it. Listeria bacteria are found naturally in the soil and water and can be spread via animal feces.
How You Get It
Food can be contaminated while growing, produced, or prepared. Commonly contaminated foods are raw fruit; raw milk; meat, including the processed kind; and cheese.
A lot of bacteria stop multiplying if refrigerated, but listeria just keeps on growing, It’s not known, however, to spread from person to person, just through the food.
Many otherwise healthy people may have few or no symptoms. Or they may have some diarrhea, fever, and nausea, or just muscle aches and fever, that lasts a few days to weeks and goes away.
But listeria can kill. Severe symptoms include more of the above plus, if it gets in the bloodstream, low blood pressure and other signs of shock. Another complication can be meningitis (an infection in the spinal cord) causing headaches, a stiff neck, and confusion. And of course, severe disease can cause death.
Those at High Risk for Severe Disease
Anyone with a weaker than average immune system is at risk for severe listeria. This includes the very young, the very old, and people with a chronic disease or who are taking medicine that can weaken immunity.
Interestingly, an average of 27 percent of reported cases are of pregnant women. Why? We know a pregnant woman’s immune system, in some aspects, gets weaker so that it won’t try to hurt the newly formed foreign body (fetus). It’s the cell-mediated part of the immune system that takes the hit. This is also the part that fights off listeria. Even so, most pregnant women with listeria have minimal symptoms, maybe a little fever and aching at most. But the tragic part is the disease can infect the fetus and even cause miscarriages.
Treatment is antibiotics for pregnant women, others at high risk, and anyone with high fever or other severe symptoms. Amoxicillin is the current drug of choice. Azithromycin and ciprofloxacin are second-line treatments.
And, of course, for anyone, use the usual support measures for diarrhea.
Anyone with severe symptoms requires hospitalization.
- Obey the recalls. Throw away any affected foods from mentioned stores.
- Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before and after peeling. Consider using a scrub brush, especially for melons. (Even when you don’t eat the peel of a fruit, cutting into the fruit could drag external bacteria inside.)
- After preparing food, wash thoroughly anything that has come in contact with it. That includes counters, knives, plates, pans, and your hands.
- If you don’t eat cooked meats right away, reheat to 165 degrees F or more, using a meat thermometer if possible. Serve steaming hot.
- If you’ve eaten any recalled foods and could be pregnant, contact your doctor.
- If you’re at high-risk for a severe case of listeria, get treatment at the first sign of symptoms.
What If You Can’t Get Expert Help?
Of course, be extra careful in doing all of the above. In a survival situation, without proper lab tests and no warning of outbreaks, it’s going to be a difficult diagnosis.
If symptoms develop, try determining what you’ve been eating and if others who have been eating it have the same symptoms. If everyone develops sudden diarrhea and vomiting it could be some kind of food poisoning, but with the listeria kind, the symptoms will be in some people and not others, symptoms will vary, and everyone probably won’t get sick at the same time.
If different people are getting sick who haven’t eaten a common food, the culprit could be a virus going around.
Dehydration is a danger in any of these, so hydration is very important.
Sometimes expert help is possible but just far away or risky. If the person is looking extremely ill, it may be his or her best hope for survival.
What about you? Ever had listeria or known someone who did?