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Food Poisoning During Pregnancy: Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention Tips 

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Food poisoning during pregnancy occurs when you consume unhygienically prepared foods and drinks contaminated with harmful microbes (bacteria, viruses, parasites), toxins, or chemicals. These substances irritate and inflame the gastrointestinal system, leading to symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting. The symptoms of food poisoning vary in intensity from mild to severe and may affect pregnant women more due to their altered immune systems (1). Thus, moms-to-be should maintain hygiene during food handling and preparation to avert foodborne illnesses.

Keep reading to know more about the causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention of food poisoning in pregnancy.

Signs And Symptoms Of Food Poisoning During Pregnancy

The signs and symptoms of food poisoning during pregnancy aren’t any different from usual. However, their intensity and frequency may vary. Here are some of the classic symptoms (2).

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • Fever
  • Mild to moderate headache

These symptoms may last from a few hours to a few days. Several mothers experience vomiting and abdominal cramps during pregnancy. It can make identifying symptoms of food poisoning tricky. Thus, if you are vomiting more frequently and have a stomach ache that feels different, consult your doctor right away.

Although uncommon, some food poisoning types (botulism and fish poisoning) may affect the nervous system, causing neurological symptoms, such as:

  • Blurred vision
  • Tingling sensation or numbness on the skin
  • Weakness

If you experience any of these symptoms, visit your nearest healthcare center right away.

Causes Of Food Poisoning

The presence of pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses, toxins, metals, and chemicals that can irritate and inflame gastrointestinal lining is the main cause of food poisoning. These elements enter food via (3)

  • Adulteration or cross-contamination of consumables during their harvesting, processing, preparation, or storage
  • Improper handling, unhygienic preparation, and poor storage of consumables

Here’s a brief insight into the various causes of food poisoning (2) (4):

1. Bacteria and viruses

Bacteria and viruses can be present in the food or enter it during different food processing and preparation stages. According to experts, bacteria and viruses are the most common cause of food poisoning (5). Below are the names of the common viruses and bacteria that could cause food poisoning.

Bacteria

Viruses

Salmonella
Staphylococcus aureus (Staph)
Clostridium perfringens
E.coli
Listeria
Campylobacter
Shigella
Vibrio
Hepatitis A (HAV)
Rotavirus
Norovirus

2. Parasites

Parasitic infections are less common than bacterial and viral infections. However, they can occur when an individual consumes food and drinks contaminated with parasites. In addition, some parasites spread through pets such as cats and dogs. Some of the common parasites known to cause food poisoning are Toxoplasma gondii, Giardia, and Cryptosporidium.

3. Toxins and chemicals

Foods and beverages may sometimes contain natural toxins and added chemicals that could cause food poisoning. For instance, unwashed veggies and fruits could contain pesticides, certain wild mushrooms contain natural toxins, and fish and shellfish may contain toxins produced by algae or bacteria that they eat.

4. Heavy metals

Heavy metals, such as cadmium, lead, arsenic, and mercury, often found in seafood, may also cause poisoning. However, the symptoms of food poisoning caused by metals take time to appear (usually three to six weeks). It’s so because metals slowly accumulate in the body’s soft tissues and cause biochemical reactions to cause poisoning (6).

Treatment For Food Poisoning During Pregnancy

The treatment for food poisoning will depend on the underlying cause and intensity of the symptoms. The treatment of food poisoning could consist of the following interventions (7).

  1. Take medications: A doctor may prescribe pregnancy-safe antibiotics if you have a bacterial infection. The chances are that the doctor may also give you probiotics to maintain your gut microbiome balance. It’s vital as antibiotics kill good and bad bacteria.
  1. Stay hydrated: Hydration is crucial for maintaining healthy digestion and absorption of nutrients. It’s also vital for maintaining proper maternal and fetal circulation. Hence, keep drinking water and consume plenty of easy-to-digest fluids, such as ORS, coconut water, buttermilk, fruit juice diluted with water, and thin soup. Once your symptoms subside, you may consume smoothies and shakes. Severe cases of dehydration may require the administration of intravenous (IV) fluids in the hospital.
  1. Modify diet: Eat light, easy-to-digest, nutritious foods to let your digestive system relax and heal. Consume food in small portions at frequent intervals. Avoid high-fat, spicy foods to prevent worsening of symptoms. Start consuming a normal diet, albeit in small quantities and at frequent intervals, as you begin feeling better.

Complications Of Food Poisoning During Pregnancy

Dehydration is the most common complication of food poisoning that can affect you and your unborn baby if not treated on time. Depending on the cause, the following moderate to severe complications may emerge due to food poisoning (8).

  • Listeriosis, an infection caused by listeria, may hamper the neurological development of the fetus. In severe cases, it may lead to miscarriage or stillbirth.
  • Botulism, caused by clostridium botulinum, may affect the nervous system and paralyze respiratory muscles, making breathing difficult.
  • Salmonellosis, caused by the bacterium salmonella, may cause reactive arthritis and meningitis.
  • E.coli may damage red blood cells and affect kidney functioning (Hemolytic uremic syndrome), which can cause kidney damage in severe cases.

Besides these, several bacteria can cause irritable bowel syndrome. Thus, pregnant women should consume food and beverages with utmost care.

Prevention Of Food Poisoning

Maintaining optimum personal hygiene is the best way to prevent food poisoning. The following vital measures could help prevent food poisoning (9) (10) (11).

1. Clean

Maintain optimum personal hygiene while handling, preparing, and storing food. For that, wash your hands with water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after eating food. If water and soap aren’t available, use alcohol-based sanitizers. Additionally, clean your kitchen, kitchen essentials, frequently touched surfaces, and fresh produce, such as fruits and vegetables, before consumption.

2. Separate

Besides maintaining hygiene, containing the spread of germs is essential to prevent cross-contamination. Therefore, store raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs separately to prevent cross-contamination. You must keep the following points in mind as well.

  • Store these raw foods, such as raw meat, in sealable bags or containers to prevent their juice’s dripping onto other foods.
  • Use separate utensils, cutting boards, and knives to cut, cook, and store raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
  • Refrigerate perishable foods, such as milk, meat, fruits, and veggies, within an hour of purchase.

3. Cook

Thoroughly cook raw food, such as meat, poultry, and seafood, to kill harmful bacteria present in it. Additionally, know the ideal temperature to cook each food type and use a food thermometer to know if the food is properly cooked.
Reheat stored food all through in a clean container or utensil. Reheat deli-style meat and poultry, such as luncheon meats, hot dogs, fermented or dry sausage, and cold cuts, to steaming hot or 165°F (73.8°C), even if the package label says precooked. Discard the food after reheating it once.

4. Chill

Storing food at appropriate temperatures can prevent bacterial growth. Keep the temperature of your refrigerator below 40°F (4°C). Don’t thaw frozen foods on the counter. Instead, thaw them in the refrigerator, in cold water, or microwave. Store cooked leftovers in the refrigerator within a couple of hours.

5. Avoid

Don’t consume packaged foods with broken seals or canned products with a dent or puffiness on the can because they are likely to be contaminated. Additionally, read a product label carefully and don’t consume the following food items during pregnancy.

  • Raw seafood, such as sushi, sashimi, raw clams, raw oysters, scallops, and ceviche.
  • Undercooked or raw sprouts, such as alfalfa, mung bean, radish, and clover.
  • Undercooked eggs or foods that contain raw eggs, such as homemade eggnog, raw batter, homemade Caesar salad dressing, Tiramisu, Eggs Benedict, homemade ice cream, and homemade hollandaise sauce.
  • Unpasteurized milk and milk products, such as soft cheese, as these products may contain harmful bacteria, such as listeria, salmonella, and E.coli.
  • Unpasteurized juice (freshly squeezed juice), and cider, as these beverages are associated with E. coli infections. Instead, look for pasteurized beverages or heat a beverage to a rolling boil before intake.
  • Ready-to-eat foods, such as premade meat or deli chicken, and seafood salad, such as those made with tuna. You may consume them if you cook them to an internal temperature of at least 165°F (73.8°C).

When To Call A Doctor

Pregnancy is a sensitive period where you should seek prompt medical care if you suspect food poisoning. Here are some of the symptoms that warrant immediate medical assistance (12).

  • Diarrhea lasting for more than three days
  • High-grade fever (102°F or higher)
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Dizziness when standing up
  • Very dry mouth and throat (signs of severe dehydration)

Food poisoning is a foodborne illness that usually resolves on its own within three to five days. However, food poisoning during pregnancy warrants prompt medical attention. It’s essential because food poisoning can worsen and cause adverse complications for you and your baby. Hence, maintain optimum personal hygiene at all times and eat hygienically prepared and properly stored, healthy food to avert food poisoning.

References:

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Swati Patwal

Swati Patwal is a clinical nutritionist and toddler mom with over eight years of experience in diverse fields of nutrition. She started her career as a CSR project coordinator for a healthy eating and active lifestyle project catering to school children. Then she worked as a nutrition faculty and clinical nutrition coach in different organizations. Her interest in scientific writing... more