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Food-borne Illness During Pregnancy - Women’s Health


Anyone can get an infection or other type of illness caused by germs or chemicals in foods. Pregnant women are more likely to get a food-borne illness.

It is important for you to learn about food-borne illness before and during pregnancy. Some illnesses caused by food can harm the pregnancy. There are ways to reduce these risks by learning about foods to avoid and how to prepare and handle food carefully.

For both mother and baby, foodborne illness can cause serious health problems – or even death.

What is a food-borne illness?

Some people call this "food poisoning." It is a sickness that occurs when you eat food or drink water that contains harmful substances such as:

  • Bacteria
  • Parasites
  • Viruses
  • Certain chemicals

What are the signs of illness from food?

You may get sick very soon after eating contaminated food or symptoms may not occur for days or weeks. This depends on what type of harmful substance is in the food. A food-borne illness can still harm a pregnancy even if the mother does not feel sick. Foodborne illness may cause:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Body aches
  • Upset stomach
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Dehydration
  • Death

Why are pregnant women at high risk?

  • Your immune system is weaker during pregnancy. This makes it harder for your body to fight off harmful germs.
  • Your baby's immune system is not fully ready to fight off harmful germs.
  • For both mother and baby, food-borne illness can cause serious health problems – or even death.

What foods to eat during pregnancy and what foods to avoid

Certain foods can put pregnant women at a higher risk for food-borne disease. Pregnant women should avoid uncooked meat, poultry and seafood, and unpasteurized dairy products and juices. The table below lists foods to be avoided and ones that are safe to eat.

If you're unsure about the ingredients in a particular dish, ask your server before ordering it. Refer to the table below to find foods safe to eat during pregnancy.

Foods Safe to Eat or to Avoid During Pregnancy
Food Group Safe to Eat Avoid Eating
Fruits and Vegetables

Washed fruits and vegetables

Unwashed fruits and vegetables

Cooked sprouts

Raw sprouts, such as alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean

Pasteurized juice

Unpasteurized juice


Eggs that are completely cooked

Eggs that are not fully cooked, runny, without a firm yolk and egg white

Pasteurized eggs

Raw unpasteurized eggs

Store bought and pasteurized:

  • Mayonnaise
  • Dressings
  • Sauces
  • Cookie dough
  • Other products made with eggs

Products containing raw unpasteurized eggs including:

  • Raw batter, filling or cookie dough
  • Eggnog
  • Homemade Caesar salad dressing
  • Béarnaise, hollandaise and aioli sauces
  • Homemade mayonnaise
  • Homemade ice cream
  • Tiramisu
  • Mousse
  • Meringue

Pasteurized milk

Unpasteurized milk

Pasteurized cheeses

Unpasteurized cheeses including:

  • Feta
  • Brie
  • Camembert
  • Blue-veined cheeses
  • Queso blanco
  • Queso fresco
  • Panela

Hot dogs and lunch meats heated until steaming hot

Cold hot dogs and lunch meats

Refrigerated smoked seafood in a cooked dish, like a casserole

Refrigerated smoked seafood including:

  • Salmon
  • Trout
  • Whitefish
  • Cod
  • Tuna
  • Mackerel often labeled as:
    • Lox
    • Nova-style
    • Kippered
    • Smoked
    • Jerky

Fully cooked meats and poultry

  • Undercooked or raw meat and poultry
  • Refrigerated pâtés or meat spreads

Pre-stuffed whole poultry that has been purchased frozen and cooked frozen, without defrosting first

Pre-stuffed poultry that has been purchased fresh and raw


Up to 12 oz. a week (2 average meals) of fully cooked fish with low levels of mercury*, including:

  • Shrimp
  • Canned light tuna
  • Salmon
  • Pollock
  • Catfish
  • Cod
  • Tilapia
  • Whitefish
  • Fish sticks

Up to 6 oz. a week of albacore (white) tuna or tuna steaks, which have more mercury than canned light tuna

Fish with high concentrations of mercury*:

  • King mackerel
  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • Tilefish

Raw fish, found in foods such as sushi and sashimi

Fully cooked shellfish

Raw shellfish including:

  • Oysters
  • Mussels
  • Clams
  • Scallops

* Mercury is a harmful metal found in high levels in some fish. Bigger and older fish usually have high levels of mercury. Unborn and newborn babies are more sensitive to mercury than adults. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid fish with high levels of mercury. Pregnant women should eat a variety of fish with low levels of mercury, up to 12 oz. a week. The FDA has more information on mercury in fish and shellfish at: What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish.

For more information on food safety, visit Food Safety.

For more on food diseases and food safety during pregnancy

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