During pregnancy, the female body goes through many physiological changes. These changes weaken the immune system, which can often make fighting off an infection fairly difficult. Throughout a pregnancy both mother and baby are very susceptible to illnesses associated with being exposed to parasites, viruses and bacteria such as Campylobacter jejuni, Toxoplasma gondii, Salmonella and E. coli.
These types of foodborne illnesses can cause gastrointestinal problems for mothers, including symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, chills, fevers, headaches, body aches and abdominal pain. Foodborne illnesses can cause considerably more harm to a growing fetus. The purpose of this blog is to help our readers become well acquainted with different types of foodbourne illness that can be dangerous for the baby and the health risks associated with them during pregnancy for both mother and child. In a subsequent post I will discuss some tips in regards to safe food handling while pregnant, as well as a list of foods that should be avoided while pregnant.
Bacteria, Viruses and Parasites You Need To Know About
Campylobacter jejuni (C. jejuni)
Campylobacter jejuni is bacteria commonly found in animal feces. Campylobacter jejuni can cause gastroenteritis and food poisoning.
Campylobacter jejuni has been linked to the development of Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS), a disorder that targets the central nervous system. GBS itself does not affect fetal or infant development or lead to spontaneous abortion or fetal death, but has sometimes caused spontaneous deliveries in the third trimester in the most severe of cases.
It does, however, often cause joint pain, numbness, weakness, vision problems, hypertension, major blood pressure fluctuations, limited muscle control and labored motor skills in those infected. Food poisoning associated with Campylobacter jejuni can be very painful, but rarely life-threatening. That being said, C. jejuni itself, if contracted during pregnancy, can lead to infection of the fetus, abortion, stillbirth or crib death.
Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a parasite called toxoplasma gondii. This parasite can be found in humans, animals and birds all over the world but is most commonly found in cats.
Humans may become infected by the parasite by handling cat litter, eating foods grown in contaminated soil, eating raw or undercooked meat, or through various medical procedures such as blood transfusions and organ transplants.
People with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to infection. Common symptoms of toxoplasmosis include fever, muscle pain, blurred vision, mental confusion, seizures, sore throat, headache and enlarged lymph nodes of the head and neck. Those suffering with the infection but do not have any symptoms typically do not need treatment. Those who do experience symptoms can be treated with antibiotics. As mentioned above, toxoplasmosis is particularly dangerous for humans with weakened immune systems. If these types of cases are left untreated, the infection can spread throughout the body. This can sometimes be deadly.
Typically those who suffer from toxoplasmosis don’t display any symptoms at all. Many people have the infection without even knowing it, including that of pregnant mothers. Although symptoms can be mild for pregnant women, this should in no way diminish how very dangerous toxoplasmosis can be for a growing fetus.
Congenital toxoplasmosis can cause low birth weights as well as damage to the baby’s eyes, nervous system, skin and ears. Approximately half of all congenital toxoplasmosis cases result in premature birth. After birth, infected babies can experience hearing loss, seizures, mental retardation, jaundice, skin rashes, vision problems, diarrhea, vomiting, feeding problems and an enlarged liver and spleen.
As a preventative measure, pregnant women should not clean the litter tray under any circumstances. They should not touch any materials that could have possibly come in contact with cat feces. This includes flies, cockroaches, garbage bins, litter scoops, etc. Always cook meat until well done and wash hands frequently.
Salmonella bacteria are one of the most common causes of foodborne illness around the world, according to the World Health Organization. It is most often caused by improper food handling and preparation, as well as being in contact with certain types of animals and especially reptiles and amphibians.
Salmonella poses many health risks to both the mother and the baby during pregnancy. For mothers, the symptoms are very similar to that of other foodborne illnesses and produces ‘salmonellosis,’ which most commonly results in mild gastroenteritis. What is additionally worrisome is how difficult it is to treat pregnant women infected with salmonella bacteria, especially since the antibiotic most commonly used to treat salmonella infection has been strongly linked to the development of birth defects. Thankfully antibiotics are required in less than 2% of salmonella infection cases.
In rare cases of the infection, however, salmonella can enter the bloodstream by way the intestine. This is where things can get particularly troublesome. Bacterial infections of the bloodstream and associated health complications, the likes of which tend to be more common in pregnant women, can produce long-term health issues and can sometimes be fatal. Some long-term complications of bloodstream infection can lead to chronic joint pain, eye irritations, problems urinating, and infections of the heart, the bone, the kidneys and the possible development of brain abscesses.
Even when symptoms are mild in mothers, the effects of salmonella infection on a growing fetus can result in severe disease, organ failure and possible death of the fetus. Salmonella infection can also result in spontaneous abortions and severe developmental delay in infected babies that survive.
Escherichia coli (E. coli)
Most strains of E. coli are considered harmless, as they are normal inhabitants of the body’s intestinal tract and vagina. Some species, however, can cause severe diarrhea and illnesses that specifically target the digestive tract and urinary tract. E. coli infections pose many health risks to both pregnant women and their unborn babies. This type of bacteria are most commonly found in the intestinal tracts of cows, chickens and various other animals.
Humans are exposed to E. coli through contaminated food, water and improper food handling and food safety. Certain foods pose a greater risk than others and include raw vegetables and fruits, unpasteurized milk and milk products and undercooked meat products. Symptoms of E. coli infection can include abdominal cramping, dehydration and chronic diarrhea.
In more severe cases, bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, severe dehydration and possible death may occur. Severe E. coli diarrhea in pregnant women, if left untreated, can result in severe dehydration that can harm the baby. It can also lead to preterm delivery and babies born with low birth weights.
Women, and especially pregnant women, are at risk of developing urinary tract infections (UTIs) if exposed to E. coli bacteria. That is one of the main reasons why pregnant women give urine samples, particularly during the first and third trimesters, to make sure that they are not suffering from a UTI. Symptoms of E. coli UTIs include fevers, chills, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, backaches, frequent and/or painful urination and bloody and/or pussy urine.
E. coli infection in pregnant women can result in miscarriage, stunted fetal growth, preterm birth, anemia, preeclampsia, pregnancy-induced hypertension and low birth weight babies.