Food Poisoning When Pregnant

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on November 14, 2022
5 min read

It’s common to have morning sickness when you’re pregnant. But sometimes your symptoms might come from something else -- food poisoning.

How can you tell if it’s a foodborne illness that’s making you sick? Once you know it is, how can you treat it safely when you have a baby on board?

Your immune system is weaker than usual when you’re pregnant, so it’s harder for your body to fight off germs that might hitch a ride on food and make you feel bad.

You can get food poisoning when you eat foods contaminated with:

There are many types of food poisoning. Some are more common, and more dangerous, when you’re pregnant.

  • Listeriosis. This comes from listeria bacteria. Pregnant women are 13 times more likely to get listeriosis than other people. It can lurk in ready-to-eat meats like hot dogs and cold cuts. Poultry, seafood, and dairy products can have it, too, especially if they’re not pasteurized. It can grow even on foods that are cold in the refrigerator.
  • Escherichia coli (E. coli). This bacteria lives in your gut naturally. Still, you can get sick if you eat contaminated fruits and vegetables, raw or undercooked meats, or unpasteurized milk and fruit juices with certain types of E. coli.
  • Salmonella. This bacteria causes something called salmonellosis. Most often, you get it from undercooked or raw eggs, meats, poultry, or unpasteurized foods. You can also get it if you eat food that has touched soil or animal poop infected with salmonella.
  • Campylobacter. You get this bacteria mainly through contaminated chicken or unpasteurized foods.
  • Norovirus. This is the main cause of foodborne illness in the U.S. The virus spreads easily through contaminated food and drinks.

It can be tricky to know when food poisoning is to blame for your sickness. Sometimes, germs from food can make you sick right away. Other times, they hang around in your body for days or even weeks before you have symptoms.

Usually, it causes:

Often, food poisoning can feel like the flu, because you might have fever, headache, and body aches along with your other things.

When you’re pregnant, it’s more than just your health you’re protecting. Some bouts of food poisoning can pose problems for your baby, whose immune system isn’t strong enough yet to fight off germs.

When you start having symptoms that seem like food poisoning, call your doctor right away. They can help you figure out if it is food poisoning, and if so, what may have caused it.

You may be able to handle your symptoms at home with your doctor’s guidance. However, if you're vomiting and having diarrhea, you may need treatment at the doctor’s office or even a hospital. Don’t take any over-the-counter medications without talking to your doctor first.

If your case is mild enough to treat at home, work on rest and rehydration. Get fluids however you can: ice chips, small sips of water or clear liquids, or by drinking a sports drink with electrolytes in it. Wait until you’re sure your vomiting is over before you try to eat. Take your first foods slowly, and stick with bland, non-greasy foods.

Your food poisoning needs professional treatment if you’re having:

Call your doctor right away if you have one or more of these problems. They’ll do tests on your blood or stool to find out what's making you sick. You may need treatment with antibiotics. They’ll also want to be sure your body has enough fluids. You may need an IV to help your body rehydrate.

Certain kinds of food poisoning are very dangerous for your unborn baby.

If you get listeriosis , you may have no symptoms at all. However, you can pass it on to your baby. That can cause serious health problems like:

At worst case, listeriosis can cause preterm labor, low birthweight, and even miscarriage or stillbirth.

Salmonellosis can also pass to your baby and put them at risk of serious complications like meningitis.

Campylobacter can cause miscarriage if you get it early in your pregnancy. It’s also very dangerous if you have it at the time you give birth and pass it to your newborn. Infection in a new baby can be life-threatening.

For you, the most common complication from food poisoning in general is dehydration. Some foodborne illnesses, especially E. coli, can also cause kidney damage.

You can protect yourself from many kinds of food poisoning, whether you’re pregnant or not, by being careful about what you eat and how you handle it.

Safe food handling tips:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before and after you touch food.
  • Don’t let raw meat come in contact with anything you’ll eat raw, like produce, or food that’s already prepared.
  • Keep perishable foods refrigerated or frozen.
  • Clean fruits and vegetables before you eat or cook them.
  • Wash utensils and food prep surfaces after you use them.
  • Cook food to a high enough temperature to kill germs.
  • Refrigerate leftovers right away. Don’t eat food that’s been sitting out or that has expired.

Certain foods should be off the menu until after your baby is born. Don’t eat or drink:

  • Unpasteurized dairy products, like raw milk and some brands of soft cheese
  • Raw or undercooked meat, poultry, fish, or shellfish
  • Runny or raw eggs, or things that contain them, like cookie dough and homemade eggnog. Pasteurized raw eggs are OK.
  • Hot dogs or deli meat, unless heated to 165 degrees
  • Refrigerated patés or meat spreads. Jarred or canned are OK.
  • Premade chicken, ham, or seafood salads from a deli
  • Smoked fish, unless it came from a can or you cook it
  • Unpasteurized juice or cider
  • Sprouts

Also pay attention to food recalls. Companies have to tell the public if they find out something they’ve sold is making people sick.