Listeria: Can food poisoning kill? 

When people complain of food poisoning, they are usually referencing a couple of days of gastrointestinal misery. They are not, however, referring to a life-threatening infection.  

Although taking a casual approach to some foodborne pathogens might be appropriate, failing to seek medical attention when exposed to foodborne pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes can be dangerous – even lethal. 

  listeria testing in a lab

What is listeria?

Listeria monocytogenes are bacteria that cause listeriosis, which can lead to an infection of the central nervous system (CNS) called neurolisteriosis. Alternatively, the bacteria can cause intestinal illness. Although less severe, intestinal illness has the potential to evolve into neurolisteriosis, which has a fatality rate of 30%.   

The central nervous system is separated from the bloodstream by the blood-brain barrier, a barrier that is meant to keep foreign substances and dangerous pathogens from infecting the central nervous system and the brain.  

However, Listeria bacteria can infect white blood cells called inflammatory monocytes because their surface proteins are compatible with the cells’ environment. When this happens, the cells can cross the blood-brain barrier and infect the central nervous system, which can be fatal. 

listeria under a microscope

What are the symptoms of neurolisteria?

Symptoms of neurolisteria tend to start roughly two weeks after ingestion of the contaminated food. Intestinal illness, which is a different manifestation of the same bacteria, tends to be less severe and symptoms appear around 24 hours after ingestion.  

These symptoms are more characteristic of what people generally perceive food poisoning to entail: vomiting and diarrhea, but usually mild and short-lived. However, intestinal illness can still lead to neurolisteria if the infected white blood cells cross the blood-brain barrier.   

However, symptoms of neurolisteria can also include:  

  • Fever  
  • Muscle aches and fatigue 
  • Headache 
  • Confusion 
  • Impaired balance 
  • Seizures 
  • Stiff neck 

Pregnant women tend to have fewer symptoms, but the mild symptoms come with a tragic consequence because Listeria infections in the mother can cause miscarriages, stillborn births, premature births, or life-threatening conditions for the newborn child.  

pregnant woman

Who is most at risk?

There are roughly 1600 Listeria infections per year and 260 deaths in the United States. 

Everyone is at risk of a Listeria infection. However, the groups who are most vulnerable to serious illness from exposure to Listeria are: 

  • Pregnant women 
  • Newborns 
  • Adults over the age of 65 
  • People with weakened immune systems 

deli meats are sometimes infected with listeria

How to protect yourself: high-risk foods to investigate

Listeria outbreaks tend to involve dairy and deli products, so be sure to only use trusted brands. Recent outbreaks include:  

  • 2021: Dole Packaged Salads, Queso Fresco, etc. 
  • 2020: deli meats, enoki mushrooms  
  • 2019: hard-boiled eggs, deli-sliced meats and cheeses 
  • 2018: pork products, deli ham 
  • 2017: Vulto Creamery Soft Raw Milk Cheese 

If you begin to experience symptoms, seek medical attention. Although it is easy to assume that food poisoning is a finite issue, Listeria infection can lead to serious and tragic outcomes. 

If you or a loved one have experienced a foodborne illness through no fault of your own, you may be entitled to compensation. Call us for a free consultation to discuss your unique experience at 866-388-1307.