Food poisoning during pregnancy

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Key Points

Food poisoning happens when you eat or drink something with harmful bacteria (germs) in it.

Normal changes in your body during pregnancy may make you more likely to get food poisoning.

During pregnancy, food poisoning can cause serious problems for you and your baby, including preterm birth, miscarriage and stillbirth.

Wash your hands before handling food and learn how to handle food safely. Don’t eat foods that commonly cause food poisoning.

If you think you have food poisoning, call your health care provider right away.

When people eat foods that have been contaminated with some types of bacteria (germs), viruses or parasites, they can get food poisoning (called foodborne illness). Your immune system protects you from infections and some diseases. Pregnant people are at high risk of getting food poisoning because pregnancy affects the immune system’s ability to fight foodborne infections. Before they are born, babies are just beginning to develop immune systems and have trouble fighting off foodborne disease. When you protect yourself from foodborne infections during pregnancy, you are also protecting your baby.

What is listeriosis and how can it affect pregnancy?

Listeriosis is a kind of food poisoning caused by Listeria bacteria. Each year, 2,500 people in the U.S. get sick with listeriosis, and half (1 out of 2) of those people are pregnant. 

During pregnancy, you can pass the bacteria to your baby. This can cause problems, including:

Babies infected with listeriosis may have problems after they are born. This can include intellectual disabilities, paralysis, seizures, blindness or problems with the brain, heart or kidneys.

Listeria may be in the soil, water, on animals and in animal waste.

How do you know if you have listeriosis?

Pregnant people should not eat homemade soft cheeses and other foods made with unpasteurized milk.

Research shows that pregnant people who are Hispanic may have a higher risk of getting listeriosis than non-Hispanic pregnant people. This is may be because in the Hispanic culture, it’s common to make and eat homemade soft cheese, such as queso fresco, and other traditional foods made from unpasteurized milk. Another source may be unpasteurized fresh farm milk.

Many pregnant people who are infected with listeriosis don’t feel sick. For those who do, the signs and symptoms of listeriosis can start a few days after eating food contaminated by Listeria, but they may not happen for up to 2 months. They’re usually mild and flu-like. Your health care provider can test your blood to see if you have listeriosis.   

Call your provider right away if you have:

  • Confusion or trouble with balance
  • Fever or chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea (feeling sick to your stomach) or diarrhea
  • Seizures
  • Stiff neck

What is salmonellosis and how can it affect pregnancy?

Salmonellosis is a kind of food poisoning caused by Salmonella bacteria. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent (CDC), Salmonella causes 1 million cases of food poisoning every year in the United States. Salmonellosis can cause problems during pregnancy, including:

  • Dehydration. This is when you don’t have enough water in your body which may be due to vomiting and diarrhea. Signs and symptoms of dehydration include feeling dizzy or lightheaded, having a fast heartbeat, having dark-colored urine and having a dry mouth and lips.
  • Bacteremia (Bacteria in the blood)
  • Meningitis (Bacteria in the brain linings)
  • Reactive arthritis (also called Reiter’s syndrome). This condition can cause swelling or pain in joints, like the knees, ankles and toes.

You can pass salmonellosis to your baby during pregnancy. If your baby is born with salmonellosis, they may have diarrhea and fever after birth. They also may develop meningitis.

You can get infected with Salmonella in two ways:

  1. By touching an infected animal. Salmonella can be found in poop, soil, water (including fish tank water), food and bedding of infected animals, including pets. Salmonella germs can spread easily to an animal’s fur, feathers and scales. Animals that are most likely to carry Salmonella include reptiles (turtles, lizards, snakes) and poultry (chickens, ducks, geese). Salmonella can also be spread through parakeets, parrots, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, horses, cats and dogs.
  2. By eating foods that are contaminated with Salmonella. These foods may look and smell normal, even if they’re contaminated.

Who is at risk for salmonellosis?

You may be at increased risk of getting salmonellosis if you:

  • Have reduced stomach acid from using medicines for heartburn (called antacids), such as Tums®.
  • Have recently used antibiotics. Antibiotics are medicines that help kill infections caused by bacteria.
  • Have a digestive condition called inflammatory bowel disease (also called IBD). Digestion is the process of how your body breaks down food after you eat.
  • Have a weak immune system or an illness such as HIV, sickle cell disease or malaria
  • Travel to places that don’t have toilets and clean water for cooking and washing.
  • Have a pet bird or reptile
  • Live and eat in group housing, such as a dormitory

How do you know if you have salmonellosis?

Signs of salmonellosis usually start a half day to 3 days after contact and last for 4 to 7 days. To test for salmonellosis, your health care provider takes a stool sample (a sample of your poop) and sends it to a lab for testing.

Call your provider right away if you have any signs or symptoms of salmonellosis, including:

  • Belly pain or stomach cramps
  • Blood in your poop or dark or amber-colored urine (pee)
  • The signs of dehydration
  • Fever or chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle pains
  • Nausea, diarrhea or throwing up

What is toxoplasmosis and how can it affect your baby?

Toxoplasmosis is an infection you can get from eating undercooked meat or touching cat poop. If you get toxoplasmosis just before or during pregnancy, you may pass the infection to your baby even if you don’t have any symptoms. Pregnancy complications caused by toxoplasmosis include preterm birth, stillbirth and miscarriage.

If you have toxoplasmosis within 6 months of getting pregnant, you may be able to pass it to your baby during pregnancy. Most babies born with toxoplasmosis have no symptoms. But about 1 in 10 babies (10 percent) with the infection are born with problems, including:

  • Eye infections or eye inflammation
  • Swollen liver and spleen
  • Jaundice (when a baby's eyes and skin look yellow.)
  • Seizures
  • Fluid on the brain (hydrocephalus)
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Large head size (macrocephaly) or smaller-than-normal head size (microcephaly)

  • Feeding problems
  • Low birthweight
  • Skin rash or bruising

Without treatment, newborns may develop problems later in life, even if they show no symptoms earlier.

How do you know you have toxoplasmosis?

You may not know if you have the infection. Many times there are no symptoms. For some people, it feels like the flu. Symptoms can include:

  • Achy muscles
  • Headache
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Fever
  • Swollen glands
  • Blurry vision
  • Eye redness

If you think you have toxoplasmosis, talk to your health care provider. Your provider can give you a blood test to find out if you have the infection.

Other bacteria that can cause food poisoning include Campylobacter and E. Coli. These infections may cause pregnancy complications or harm your baby before or after birth.

How can you protect yourself and your baby from food poisoning during pregnancy?

Avoid eating:

  • Unpasteurized milk, juice and foods made with it. If milk or juice is pasteurized, it’s been heated to kill germs. Look for the word “pasteurized” on the label.
  • Soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk, such as feta, Brie, Camembert, Roquefort and Mexican-style cheeses, such as queso fresco, queso blanco, Panela and Asadero. Cheese made with pasteurized milk is safe to eat. Check the labels.
  • Uncooked or room temperature deli meat, dry sausages and hot dogs (including their  juice). These meats are OK to eat if they have been heated until they are steaming hot or to 165 F.  
  • Refrigerated pâtés or meat spreads. Canned meat spreads are safe to eat.
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood, including nova-style, lox, kippered, smoked and jerky.
  • Raw seafood, including sushi, sashimi, oysters, clams, scallops and ceviche. You may eat seafood if they are cooked to 145 F (62.8 C)
  • Raw or undercooked poultry or meat. Cooking these items fully before eating.
  • Raw or undercooked eggs and foods made with them, such as runny eggs or homemade mayonnaise, hollandaise sauce, Caesar salad dressing, cookie dough, eggnog, frostings and ice cream. Even eggs that look normal can make you sick if you eat them raw or undercooked.
  • Raw sprouts, such as alfalfa, clover, radish and mung bean. It’s Ok to eat these cooked until they are steaming hot.
  • Uncooked flour, including raw cookie dough, cake mix, batter or any other raw dough or batter that is supposed to be cooked or baked.

Other things you can do:

  • Wash fruits and vegetables before eating or cooking them.
  • Wash kitchen utensils and cutting boards used to prepare raw or undercooked meat and fruits and vegetables after using them.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly, especially after handling or touching animals, such as cats and their litter box. Also, right before handling food and after using the bathroom.
  • Clean the lids on canned foods before opening them.
  • Use paper towels to clean up kitchen surfaces then throw them away. If you use cloth towels, be sure to wash them in very hot water.
  • Handle foods safely whenever you wash, prepare, cook and store them.
  • Use a meat thermometer to be sure foods are cooked to the proper temperature.
  • Wash knives, cutting boards and dishes used to prepare raw meat, fish or poultry before using them for other foods. You can wash plastic cutting boards in a dishwasher. Another way to sanitize cutting boards and counter tops is to rinse them in a solution made of 1 tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach and 1 gallon of water.
  • Never taste a food to see if it’s safe to eat.

How is food poisoning treated?

Treatment depends on how sick you are. You may not need any treatment, or your provider may treat you with antibiotics to help keep you and your baby safe. If you have food poisoning, drink lots of water to help you stay hydrated (have water in your body). If you’re severely dehydrated (don’t have enough water in your body), you may need to go to the hospital for treatment.

What to do if you think you have food poisoning

If you think you have food poisoning:

  • Call your provider
  • Keep the food you think made you sick. Write “DANGER” on it and put it in your freezer. Save any labels or packaging from the food, such as cans or cartons.
  • Write down the food type, the date and time you ate it, and when you first started to feel sick.
  • If you think meat, poultry or eggs made you sick, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854). For all other foods, call the FDA office of Emergency Operations at 1-866-300-4374.
  • If you think food from a restaurant made you sick, call your local health department. To find your local health department, visit Health Guide USA.

More information

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

FDA Food Information Line: 1-888-SAFE-FOOD

Food and Drug Administration

Last reviewed: February 2024