What is listeria? You can get it through foods, but many people die from it

As part of a 3-part series, Washington Post reporters and columnists explore the path to reaching this virulent pandemic What Is Listeria? There are no certain sources of infection with listeria, but it is…

What is listeria? You can get it through foods, but many people die from it

As part of a 3-part series, Washington Post reporters and columnists explore the path to reaching this virulent pandemic

What Is Listeria?

There are no certain sources of infection with listeria, but it is closely linked to foodborne pathogens like salmonella and E. coli. Listeria can also be transmitted to live animals, causing pneumonia, liver infection, and even meningitis. Like with other foodborne illnesses, people can become infected by eating food contaminated with listeria, but they can also acquire listeria through the environment or by buying contaminated food.

Listeria can contaminate foods from other places like food processing plants and raw-milk cow and goat farms. But it is particularly likely to arrive in food at retail establishments like supermarkets or fast-food restaurants. Large outbreaks of listeria, which has been relatively rare until recently, have taken place in restaurants and grocery stores:

In 2014, listeria was linked to at least 170 deaths and 400 illnesses in Canada and the United States.

In 2007, six people died and 12 became seriously ill in Philadelphia after getting food from a deli where the food-processing company Snyder’s of Hanover had contaminated raw meats.

In 2015, 28 people were hospitalized and six died after eating contaminated deli meat in South Dakota.

Listeria is a staphylococcus bacteria that grows in live animals. It often lives in gut tissue or as a toxin that destroys red blood cells. It usually does not spread to people, but when it does, the chance that they get sick is high.

When is it life-threatening?

A case of listeria infection is relatively rare, but it can lead to serious illness and even death. Serious infections are rare among healthy people, although a few cases of listeria infection and septicemia were reported this summer among people who ate contaminated ice cream or Coney Island hot dogs. You may feel better in a week, but a multi-system infection can take months to develop, with symptoms like vomiting, fever, and high blood pressure, and these infections can be particularly dangerous for pregnant women and premature infants. After hospitalization, people can have complications that leave them with chronic conditions such as arthritis.

Severe illness due to listeria usually does not become life-threatening unless the person is suffering from a particular complication like an infection in a blood vessel or organ, or if the infection has spread to the brain.

Who is at risk?

The elderly, people with a weak immune system, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems are most likely to get sick. Unhealthy children, pregnant women, and the elderly also need to watch out for infections because some infections or complications can cause tissue damage or internal bleeding.

Most serious infections due to listeria are the result of person-to-person contact, and they can also spread through contaminated environments in food, but they don’t get very sick.

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