Answering Your Patient’s Questions About Listeria

Blue Bell ice cream’s massive recall of all of its products from store shelves has everyone talking food safety this week. Living in the South, Blue Bell makes a frequent appearance in my personal freezer so the recall hits close to home. Friends, family, and my patients are asking what they need to know about these products potentially contaminated with Listeria.

If you’re a nurse practitioner, chances are that your patients may have a few questions about the bacteria and their risk for infection as well. Here’s what NPs need to know to respond to common patient concerns.

1. What is Listeria?

Listeria is a bacteria commonly known to cause food borne illness. It lives naturally in water, soil, and the intestines of animals. Listeria can survive more extreme temperatures than many other types of bacteria allowing it to live even in refrigerated or frozen foods. The bacteria may also survive for years on contaminated surfaces such as those in manufacturing facilities. Listeria infection may be contracted as a result of eating contaminated foods like unpasteurized milk, processed meats, improperly washed produce, or food prepared on contaminated surfaces.

2. Who is most at risk for Listeria infection?

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While anyone who eats food products contaminated with Listeria is susceptible to illness, certain groups are increased risk. The elderly and immunocompromised individuals are most likely to fall ill as a result of consuming contaminated products. Pregnant women are also more commonly affected. During pregnancy, women are twenty times more susceptible to Listeria infection putting them at risk for miscarriage, infection in the newborn and stillbirth. 

3. What are the symptoms of Listeria?

Symptoms of Listeria are flu-like including high fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and muscle aches. Symptoms may range from mild to severe typically lasting from one to four days. Complications of the infection include bacteremia, endocarditis, meningitis and death. Death rates from Listeria range from 10 to 50 percent with newborns in the first week of life at greatest risk. 

Listeria‘s incubation period is quite long ranging from 3 to 70 days. On average, symptoms do not appear until about 30 days after exposure to the bacteria making the source of the illness difficult to pinpoint. 

4. How is Listeria infection identified and treated?

Listeria is typically diagnosed by stool culture but can also be isolated from blood or spinal fluid. The illness is usually self-limited with the body’s immune system fighting off the infection on its own. Patients in at-risk groups or those with severe symptoms may require treatment with antibiotics. In pregnant women, prompt and aggressive therapy is critical to prevent spontaneous abortion and preterm delivery. Ampicillin is the antibiotic of choice in treating Listeria infection. 

5. What do I need to know about the recent Blue Bell ice cream recall?

Last month, three patients in a Kansas hospital died after eating Blue Bell ice cream bars contaminated with Listeria. In response, the company pulled these products off store shelves. Further testing of remaining products on the market recently identified Listeria contamination in half-gallon ice cream containers as well prompting a complete recall of Blue Bell products. Blue Bell ice cream is sold in 23 states, primarily in the South. 

Yesterday I had the chance to discuss Listeria concerns on the Fox Business channel with host Neil Cavuto. Check out the clip.

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