Evidence Based

Food Poisoning While Pregnant: Causes & Treatment

Susan Adeosun, Dr.

Published at 00:08

Kathy Shattler, MS, RDN

Medical reviewer

Food poisoning during pregnancy can be avoided with proper diet. Photo: kryzhov/shutterstock

Food poisoning is a concerning issue for anyone, but it is even worse if it affects a sensitive demographic. Pregnancy is already a rollercoaster of surprises, but food poisoning is one twist you definitely don’t want. For expecting moms, the risks go beyond a tummy ache and can potentially harm both mom and baby if not managed properly.

Thus, understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for food poisoning while pregnant is crucial for ensuring the health and well-being of both the mother and the developing fetus. 
This article aims to provide a comprehensive overview of food poisoning during pregnancy – covering common causes, treatment options, and preventive measures like foods to avoid during pregnancy. This knowledge can help pregnant women take proactive steps to protect themselves and their babies from the complications associated with foodborne illnesses.

Food Poisoning During Pregnancy

  • Pregnant women are at high risk for foodborne illnesses caused by pathogens such as Norovirus, Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter, and E. coli.
  • Food poisoning may cause symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, and flu-like signs.
  • There may be potential complications from foodborne pathogens, such as dehydration, preterm labor, fetal infections, and stillbirth.
  • There is a need for prompt medical attention and appropriate treatments to mitigate risks from foodborne poisoning. 
  • Proper food handling and hygiene practices are essential for avoiding foodborne illnesses during pregnancy.

Causes of Food Poisoning During Pregnancy

Causes of Food Poisoning During Pregnancy
Causes of Food Poisoning During Pregnancy. Photo: FOTO Eak/shutterstock

The risk of food poisoning[1] is so much higher when you’re pregnant than for the general population. About 1 in 6 Americans[2] experience food poisoning each year, and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to severe complications.

Why are pregnant women more susceptible? Due to changes in their immune system from altered hormones, pregnant women are at higher risk for foodborne illnesses from bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

Pregnancy induces changes in the immune system, shifting towards a Th2-dominant response to protect the fetus[3]. Th2-dominance is required for maternal acceptance of the fetus rather than treating it as an invader. As a result of this response shift, autoimmune responses and susceptibility to infections increase. The body’s energy becomes more focused on growing the baby, leaving it more vulnerable to infections.

Most cases of food poisoning during pregnancy are caused by self-limiting viral agents like Norovirus and bacteria such as E. coli, Campylobacter, and salmonella. Campylobacter affects 1.5 million people yearly[4] and can be transmitted from animals to humans. While mild to moderate cases of food poisoning aren’t uncommon, they typically won’t harm pregnancy. 

On the other hand, serious foodborne illnesses, like listeriosis, are rare –  around 12 cases per 100,000 people[5]. Still, they’re studied extensively because of their potentially deadly repercussions.

Let’s break down some common culprits of food poisoning during pregnancy:

Norovirus 

Norovirus is a virus that causes sudden diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and stomach pain. It’s often called the stomach flu, though unrelated to the flu (influenza). Norovirus spreads quickly[6] through contaminated food and water, person-to-person contact, and touching of contaminated surfaces.

Getting norovirus while pregnant can be worrisome because it can lead to severe diarrhea and complicate your pregnancy. However, with the proper care, you’ll get through it fine. Drink plenty of fluids, like water and oral rehydration solutions, to stay hydrated.

E. coli

This bacterium has many strains, some harmless and some not so innocuous. Pregnant women can pick up harmful E. coli[7] from raw veggies, undercooked meats, unpasteurized milk, and poorly processed foods like salad greens. So, if these are often in your diet, you may likely pick up E. coli. 

Harmful strains of E. coli may cause severe gastrointestinal distress, leading to symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, and vomiting. In severe cases, E. coli infection can lead to a condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome[8], which affects the blood and kidneys in those who are genetically susceptible and can be life-threatening for both you and your baby.

Salmonella

Salmonella is usually self-limiting[9] and found in raw or undercooked meat, fish, eggs, and unpasteurized dairy products. However, it can sometimes cause severe dehydration or even bacteria in the bloodstream, which is not good news for you or your baby.

Severe dehydration can lead to complications such as low amniotic fluid, which is essential for your baby’s development. If the bacteria gets into a pregnant woman’s bloodstream, it can cause a condition called bacteremia[10]. which can spread the infection to other parts of your body. This is why ensuring your food is thoroughly cooked and handled correctly is crucial.

Listeriosis

This is one of the most dangerous foodborne illnesses during pregnancy. It is caused by the listeria bacteria[11] found in soil, water, and certain animals. 

According to the CDC[12], every year, 4 in 100,000 pregnant women in the U.S. get sick with Listeria. Sadly, one in these four pregnant women who get this illness loses their pregnancy or their baby shortly after birth. The condition can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, or preterm birth, even though it’s quite rare.

Listeria has the unique ability to cross the placental barrier[13]. It can invade placental trophoblasts, leading to an infection of the placenta and, subsequently, the amniotic fluid. This allows the bacteria to reach the fetus directly.

This bacteria can contaminate a variety of foods[14], including deli meats, unpasteurized dairy products, and ready-to-eat foods. Once eaten, it crosses the placental barrier, it can infect the fetus, leading to severe consequences such as miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, or neonatal listeriosis. 

At this point, the mother may not have exhibited symptoms yet. Sometimes, Listeria is diagnosed by testing maternal or newborn blood[15], newborn cerebrospinal fluid, amniotic fluid, tissue samples, or the placenta. If a pregnant woman tests positive and isn’t allergic, doctors usually prescribe high-dose antibiotics. 

Neonatal listeriosis can manifest as sepsis, meningitis, or pneumonia in the newborn. It has a high risk of death. In extreme cases where both mom and baby are in trouble, doctors might consider ending the pregnancy to save the mom’s life.

Symptoms Of Food Poisoning During Pregnancy

The best way to quickly detect a case of food poisoning is to be aware of the symptoms. In the case of pregnancy, it is critical to detect food poisoning early and treat it immediately. Here are the common symptoms to watch out for:

  1. Nausea and vomiting: Feeling sick to your stomach and throwing up are common signs of food poisoning. While morning sickness is also a culprit, consider recent meals if other symptoms accompany vomiting.
  1. Diarrhea: Frequent, loose, or watery stools indicate something isn’t right. Diarrhea can lead to dehydration, which is especially risky during pregnancy.
  1. Abdominal pain and cramps: Sharp or cramping stomach pain can indicate an infection. This discomfort can range from mild to severe and might be mistaken for other types of abdominal pain.
  1. Fever: A fever, especially over 100.4°F (38°C), can signify your body is fighting an infection. This temperature rise is particularly concerning during pregnancy, as a high fever can affect your baby.
  1. Chills and sweating: Chills or sweating can accompany a fever and indicate that your body is battling an illness.
  1. Fatigue and weakness: Feeling unusually tired or weak can be a sign of food poisoning, especially when paired with other symptoms. 
  2. Headache: A persistent headache and other symptoms can be part of the body’s response to an infection.

How To Treat Food Poisoning While Pregnant?

The easiest way to avoid poisoning is to eat the best foods for pregnancy. However, sorting through the good and bad meals can be challenging. So, in cases where you may feel any symptom outlined above, or if you suspect you have food poisoning during pregnancy, it’s crucial to act promptly to protect both your health and your baby’s. 

Here are some steps to take:

Stay Hydrated

One of the most significant risks of food poisoning is dehydration and electrolyte loss, especially if you are vomiting or have diarrhea. Drink plenty of fluids, such as water, clear broths, or oral rehydration solutions. 

These electrolytes are vital for various bodily functions, including nerve and muscle function, hydration, and maintaining the body’s acid-base balance. Replenishing electrolytes is as essential as replenishing fluids to prevent complications like muscle cramps, weakness, and cardiac arrhythmias.

Rest

Your body needs energy to fight off the infection. Get plenty of rest and avoid strenuous activities. Ensure you stay hydrated during this period and only participate in light physical activities.

Eat Light

When you feel ready to eat, start with soft, easy-to-digest, low-fiber foods. Most experts no longer recommend a restricted diet[16] for diarrhea. However, avoiding lactose in dairy, caffeine, or sugary, fatty, and spicy foods may be helpful until you feel better.

Monitor Your Symptoms

Keep an eye on your symptoms. If you have a high fever (over 100.4°F or 38°C), severe abdominal pain, or blood in your stool, or if symptoms persist for more than a few days, contact your healthcare provider immediately. 

Consult Your Healthcare Provider

Always consult your healthcare provider if you suspect food poisoning. They can provide personalized advice and may need to monitor your condition more closely. They may carry out a stool test to determine the cause of the food poisoning and also recommend safe medications or treatments to alleviate your symptoms.

Conclusion

If you suspect food poisoning, staying hydrated and seeking medical advice is essential. Your healthcare provider can recommend safe treatments and ensure you and your baby stay healthy. Remember, it’s always better to be cautious and get checked out if you’re experiencing these symptoms during pregnancy.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the common causes of food poisoning during pregnancy?

Common causes include consuming contaminated foods like undercooked meats, unpasteurized dairy products, raw eggs, and certain seafood. Bacteria such as Listeria, Campylobacter, and E. coli, as well as viruses like norovirus, are frequent culprits.

How does food poisoning affect pregnancy?

Food poisoning can lead to dehydration, nutrient deficiencies, and, in severe cases, miscarriage or premature birth. It poses significant risks to both the mother and the developing fetus.

What are the symptoms of food poisoning while pregnant?

Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, and dehydration. Severe cases might lead to more serious complications like persistent vomiting or high fever, requiring immediate medical attention.

How can pregnant women prevent food poisoning?

Preventive measures include avoiding high-risk foods, thoroughly cooking meats, washing fruits and vegetables, practicing good kitchen hygiene, and preventing cross-contamination using separate utensils for raw and cooked foods.

Dr Susan Adeosun (MPH, MD) is a Medical Doctor and Public Health enthusiast. She has over five years’ worth of experience in public health and preventive medicine and is a firm believer in the famous phrase by Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, “prevention is better than cure.” Her journey through public health, combined with her love for writing, has resulted in the publication of several health articles on various blogs, websites, and peer review journals.

Resources

MANA adheres to strict sourcing guidelines, avoids most tertiary sources, and uses only professional resources updated to contain accurate and current information. We majorly rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research from reputable medical associations. For more information regarding our editorial process, please refer to the provided resources.

  1. Kingsley Emwinyore Agho and Paige (2023). BMC pregnancy and childbirth – ‘screening and management of food insecurity in pregnancy’. BMC pregnancy and childbirth, [online] 23(1). doi:https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-023-06062-x.
  2. Center (2024). Food Safety Booklet for Pregnant Women. [online] U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/food/people-risk-foodborne-illness/food-safety-booklet-pregnant-women-their-unborn-babies-and-children-under-five [Accessed 30 May 2024].
  3. Racicot, K., Kwon, J., Aldo, P., Silasi, M. and Mor, G. (2014). Understanding the Complexity of the Immune System during Pregnancy. American journal of reproductive immunology, [online] 72(2), pp.107–116. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/aji.12289.
  4. CDC (2024). About Campylobacter infection. [online] Campylobacter Infection (Campylobacteriosis). Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/campylobacter/about/index.html#:~:text=Campylobacter%20cause%20the%20most%20bacterial,ill%20from%20Campylobacter%20every%20year. [Accessed 30 May 2024].
  5. Datta, A. and Burall, L. (2018). Current Trends in Foodborne Human Listeriosis. Food safety, [online] 6(1), pp.1–6. doi:https://doi.org/10.14252/foodsafetyfscj.2017020.
  6. Robilotti, E., Deresinski, S. and Pinsky, B.A. (2015). Norovirus. Clinical microbiology reviews, [online] 28(1), pp.134–164. doi:https://doi.org/10.1128/cmr.00075-14.
  7. Sáez-López, E., Elisabet Guiral, Dietmar Fernández-Orth, Villanueva, S., Goncé, A., López, M., Teixidó, I., Pericot, A., Figueras, F., Palacio, M., Cobo, T., Bosch, J. and Soto, S.M. (2016). Vaginal versus Obstetric Infection Escherichia coli Isolates among Pregnant Women: Antimicrobial Resistance and Genetic Virulence Profile. PloS one, [online] 11(1), pp.e0146531–e0146531. doi:https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0146531.
  8. Bhandari (2023). Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. [online] Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32310498/ [Accessed 30 May 2024].
  9. Chan, M.Y. and Smith, M.A. (2018). Infections in Pregnancy. Elsevier eBooks, [online] pp.232–249. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-12-801238-3.64293-9.
  10. Shah, A. and DeSimone, D.C. (2022). Bacteremia. Elsevier eBooks, [online] pp.268–276. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-323-69578-7.00019-3.
  11. El, I., Ahalini Mohanaraj‐Anton, Ivar Benjamin Horte, Ronald Francis Lamont, Khalid Saeed Khan, Jan Stener Jørgensen and Amezcua‐Prieto, C. (2022). Listeriosis in pregnancy: An umbrella review of maternal exposure, treatment and neonatal complications. BJOG, [online] 129(9), pp.1427–1433. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/1471-0528.17073.
  12. CDC (2023). Protect your pregnancy from Listeria. [online] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/listeria/pregnant-people.html#:~:text=Every%20year%2C%204%20in%20100%2C000%20pregnant%20people%20in,their%20pregnancy%20or%20their%20baby%20shortly%20after%20birth. [Accessed 30 May 2024].
  13. Johnson, L.J., Azari, S., Webb, A., Zhang, X., Gavrilin, M.A., Marshall, J.M., Rood, K. and Seveau, S. (2021). Human Placental Trophoblasts Infected by Listeria monocytogenes Undergo a Pro-Inflammatory Switch Associated With Poor Pregnancy Outcomes. Frontiers in immunology, [online] 12. doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2021.709466.
  14. Lamont, R.F., Sobel, J., Shali Mazaki-Tovi, Juan Pedro Kusanovic, Edi Vaisbuch, Sun Kwon Kim, Niels Uldbjerg and Romero, R. (2011). Listeriosis in human pregnancy: a systematic review. Journal of perinatal medicine, [online] 39(3). doi:https://doi.org/10.1515/jpm.2011.035.
  15. Wang, Z., Tao, X., Liu, S., Zhao, Y. and Yang, X. (2021). An Update Review on Listeria Infection in Pregnancy. Infection and drug resistance, [online] Volume 14, pp.1967–1978. doi:https://doi.org/10.2147/idr.s313675.
  16. and, D. (2024). Eating, Diet, & Nutrition for Food Poisoning. [online] National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Available at: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/food-poisoning/eating-diet-nutrition [Accessed 30 May 2024].
Feedback

Help us rate this article

Thank you for your feedback

Keep in touch to see our improvement