Listeria: Know the Facts

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream announced today that it is temporarily closing its doors and recalling all products because the Nebraska Department of Agriculture found listeria in a sample of the company’s ice cream. Jeni’s CEO, John Lowe, released a statement saying, “We have decided to recall everything currently on retailer shelves, and we are closing our scoop shops until we are 100% confident every item we sell is safe.”

This begs the question: What is listeria?
Listeria monocytogenes is a bacterial organism that makes its home in soil where it can contaminate vegetation and livestock. It is most commonly passed to humans on raw fruits and vegetables, raw meat, hot dogs, deli meat, smoked fish, milk, cheese and other dairy products. Unlike many other bacteria, listeria can grow in the cold temperatures of refrigeration. Rinsing produce can halt its spread, but cooking or pasteurization is required to kill it.

What symptoms does listeria cause?
Listeria enters the human body through the GI tract. In many cases, it causes no symptoms at all, and a healthy immune system kills it before illness strikes. Other times, listeria causes vomiting and diarrhea which can lead to dehydration. Fever and muscle aches are also possible. Sometimes the bacteria remains in the GI tract several weeks before causing illness, and incubation periods as long as 70 days have been reported.

Is listeria dangerous?
It can be—especially if the organism invades the intestinal wall and enters the bloodstream. This is most likely to occur in those with compromised immune systems. Young infants, pregnant women, elderly adults, transplant and chemotherapy patients, and those with chronic illnesses such as kidney and liver disease and diabetes are at highest risk for invasive disease.

Pregnant women are 20 times more likely to suffer invasive disease compared with healthy adults, and the organism can infect mom’s baby. This may result in miscarriage, stillbirth or life-long health problems.

What else happens when listeria invades the body?
Invasive listeria can result in an overwhelming infection of the bloodstream known as sepsis. Listeria also has an affinity for the central nervous system and may cause meningitis. Both of these conditions are deadly and require hospital admission and IV antibiotics.

What should you do?
In a released statement, Jeni’s says “customers who have purchased any of the products are urged to dispose of them or return them to the store where they were purchased for an exchange or full refund, and consult with their physician regarding any medical questions.”

Keep in mind, most cases of listeria (especially in people with healthy immune systems) are mild and get better on their own. Treatment is necessary only in cases of severe or invasive disease. Those at high risk should call their doctor if they experience any concerning symptoms in the weeks following a possible exposure.

Anyone who falls very ill with fever, stiff neck, headache, or persistent vomiting should call their physician or visit their nearest Emergency Department or Urgent Care immediately.

Mike Patrick, MD
Dr. Mike is an emergency medicine physician at Nationwide Children’s and host of PediaCast, our pediatric podcast for moms and dads. Each week, PediaCast covers news parents can use, answers listener questions, and delivers interviews with pediatric experts on a variety of topics. Dr Mike is also an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, where he serves as a faculty advisor for medical students. On the home front, he is married with two kids: a college-aged daughter and a son in high school. Prior to working in the emergency department, Dr Mike spent 10 years in a busy private practice, a time he says most prepared him for the practical advice he shares on PediaCast. Dr Mike also has an interest in roller skating. He learned to walk with skates on his feet, and his first job (age 10) was as a disc jockey at his hometown roller skating rink. He has also worked as a DJ at two radio stations, experiences which further prepared him to host our podcast!

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