Many women leave their OB/GYN’s office with a list of do’s and don’ts after their first prenatal visit. One common thing pregnant women are told to avoid eating is cold cuts. But why?
The main concern with cold cuts in pregnancy is that they can harbor the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes. This is a bacteria that causes the infection listeriosis. Symptoms of listeriosis include fever, muscle aches, diarrhea, headache, stiff neck, confusion, and in severe cases, death. You can also contract the bacteria and show no symptoms at all, but still pass it on to your unborn baby. Developing babies who become infected with Listeria can have issues such as preterm labor and delivery, growth restriction, and fetal death. If they survive, they can also develop paralysis, seizures, and blindness.
Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to this infection because of their weakened immune system. They account for one-third of all documented listeriosis cases, and are 20 times more likely to become infected than their healthy adult non-pregnant counterparts.
The problem with Listeria is that it can grow at refrigerator temperatures, whereas other bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses cannot. It can be found in ready-to-eat foods such as lunch meats, chicken, seafood, and dairy made from unpasteurized milk. This is why pregnant women are asked to avoid eating cold cuts since they can be tainted with Listeria, even when stored properly.
The good news is listeriosis can be prevented. If you can’t stay away from cold cuts, be sure to heat them until they are steaming hot as this will destroy the Listeria bacteria. The same rule of thumb goes for hot dogs. If you want to have sandwiches containing meat but don’t want to have to reheat deli meats, you can cook your own whole chicken (be sure the internal temperature is 165 degrees) and then shred it or slice it for a sandwich. Keep your refrigerator at forty degrees or below, and be sure to discard any perishable food that has sat out for longer than two hours.
Reviewed by Dr. Jen Lincoln, November 2018
- Pregnant women are asked to avoid cold cuts because of a risk for Listeria infection.
- Listeria can be asymptomatic in a pregnant woman but can still be passed to her unborn child.
- Pregnant women account for one-third of all listeriosis cases.