Listeria meningitis is a type of bacterial meningitis that is a serious complication of a listeria infection. Without prompt treatment, it can quickly become life threatening. After recovering from meningitis, some people are left with permanent disabilities.

Meningitis involves inflammation and swelling of the protective membranes, called meninges, that surround the brain and spinal cord. This can happen for many reasons, including injury and infection.

Listeria infection, also called listeriosis, is a rare disease caused by the bacteria called Listeria monocytogenes. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), almost all cases stem from consuming contaminated food. It’s most likely to affect pregnant people, newborns, and those with a weakened immune system.

We’ll overview what causes listeria meningitis to occur, how to treat it, prevention, and more.

Other types of meningitis

There are several types of meningitis, each with its own cause and some distinct symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), viral meningitis is the most common type, followed by bacterial.

The full list includes:

  • bacterial meningitis
  • viral meningitis
  • fungal meningitis
  • parasitic meningitis
  • amebic meningitis
  • noninfectious meningitis
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Listeriosis doesn’t usually develop in otherwise healthy people. A mild form of infection is called noninvasive listeriosis. This may cause a low grade fever and a bout of diarrhea.

Invasive listeriosis is a far more severe form of infection.

Here are those found to be at higher risk of developing invasive listeriosis:

Symptoms usually start to develop within a few days to a few weeks after exposure. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the incubation period can last up to 90 days. Infection can spread to the liver, bloodstream, and brain.

Meningitis means there’s inflammation of the fluid and membranes that protect the brain and spinal cord. A 2018 review indicates Listeria monocytogenes is one of the most severe causes of bacterial meningitis.

Symptoms in adults

Symptoms of a listeria infection can start gradually or come on suddenly (acute).

According to the CDC, key symptoms of listeriosis include:

  • fever or chills
  • headache
  • stiff neck
  • muscle aches or joint pain
  • diarrhea
  • decreased alertness
  • confusion or altered mental state

If a listeria infection progresses to bacterial meningitis, core symptoms are similar.

Additional signs may look like:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • light sensitivity

Those who recover from bacterial meningitis brought on by a listeria infection can be left with permanent health problems.

Lasting effects from the disease can include:

  • hearing loss
  • vision problems
  • weakness
  • brain damage
  • mental impairment


The CDC reports pregnant people are 10 times more likely than other people to get listeriosis. They also indicate pregnant Hispanic women are particularly at risk, being 24 times more likely to contract the infection.

While the CDC states pregnant women are at a higher risk of listeriosis, they often have a mild illness, while the fetus or newborn is at risk of severe disease.

During pregnancy, listeria meningitis can lead to:

Listeriosis during pregnancy leads to death of the fetus in 20 percent of cases. It leads to newborn death in 3 percent of cases.

Symptoms in newborns and babies

Symptoms in newborns and babies can be more difficult to spot than those in adults.

These include:

  • inactivity or lethargy
  • irritability or excessive crying
  • lack of appetite
  • irregular reflexes
  • skin rash
  • vomiting
  • bulging fontanel (soft spot on a baby’s head)

Other complications

Bacterial meningitis can also cause:

Additional possible complications of listeriosis include:

Many forms of meningitis, including bacterial meningitis, are contagious. The main mode of infectious meningitis transmission is through the air or bodily fluids.

Listeria infection can spread from person to person, but the main route of transmission is contaminated food. Listeria monocytogenes is quite common in the environment.

The bacteria can live in:

  • soil
  • water
  • animal feces
  • manure
  • decaying vegetation

Here are foods most often associated with listeriosis:

  • raw sprouts and other raw vegetables
  • unpasteurized dairy products
  • soft cheeses
  • deli meats and hot dogs
  • smoked seafood
  • prepackaged salads

Listeria monocytogenes is a little different from other bacteria that cause foodborne diseases. It can thrive despite refrigeration. This bacteria is still likely to be found in refrigerated foods with a long shelf life and in uncooked foods. This means you have to be extra careful regarding potential contamination.

Early diagnosis and treatment are essential to the best outcome. Prompt care can help prevent your listeria infection from becoming listeria meningitis.

Your doctor will probably want to test your blood or spinal fluid to identify the source of the illness.

The main treatments for listeria infection are antibiotics called ampicillin and gentamicin, both given intravenously.

If necessary, treatment for listeria meningitis may also include:

Listeriosis is rare. It affects about 1,600 people in the United States each year and causes around 260 deaths. In fetuses, newborns, and others who have a weakened immune system or are at high risk, complications like meningitis can progress rapidly.

Currently, there’s no vaccine to prevent listeriosis or listeria meningitis. However, there are vaccines to prevent bacterial meningitis due to other causes.

Listeriosis is mainly a foodborne illness. Here are some things you can do to help prevent spreading it or getting it, incorporating FDA guidance:

  • Set your refrigerator at 40°F (4°C) or lower and your freezer at 0°F (-18°C) or lower.
  • Refrigerate leftovers in a shallow, covered container within 2 hours. Discard if not eaten within 3 to 4 days.
  • Avoid consuming unpasteurized milk or soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk.
  • Heat deli meats and hot dogs until they’re steaming hot.
  • Keep raw and cooked foods apart. Don’t let potentially contaminated foods touch other foods in the refrigerator, on the cutting board, or anywhere else in the kitchen.
  • Use a proper handwashing technique before and after handling food.
  • Wash cutting boards, utensils, and kitchen countertops thoroughly.

If you have a known exposure or have symptoms, get in touch with a doctor right away. Sometimes, a precautionary course of antibiotic therapy can be started before getting test results.

Staying informed

The Food and Safety Inspection Services (FSIS) of the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) seek to alert the public of any potential or confirmed food and product contaminations.

It’s important to be on the lookout for warnings and recalls to keep you, and your loved ones, safe. Consider signing up for updates or bookmarking these pages:

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Listeriosis is a rare foodborne illness. It mainly affects older adults, people with weakened immune systems, or those who are pregnant. In pregnancy, it can be transmitted and cause severe harm to the fetus.

Untreated listeria infection can lead to serious complications, including a life threatening type of bacterial meningitis. Early diagnosis and a course of antibiotics offer the best chance at a good outcome for listeria infection. If you have signs or symptoms of listeriosis or meningitis, seek medical help immediately.

You can lower your risk of getting listeriosis by avoiding certain foods, and practicing proper food handling.

There’s no vaccine to prevent listeriosis or listeria meningitis. But in addition to discussing your risk factors, you can speak to your doctor about vaccines for other types of bacterial meningitis, or any troubling symptoms you may be experiencing.