Last month, I wrote about gastroenteritis (diarrhea caused by bacteria in food) and how it affects children. This month, I thought I’d elaborate on the topic for expectant mothers. With the dog days of August upon us – and given the propensity of bacteria to thrive in the heat – you can never be too careful about food safety, especially if you’re pregnant.
One can easily get "gastro" from street food vendors, but even 5-star restaurants aren’t immune. Pregnant women have the same risks of infection as anybody else, but they should be especially choosy about where and what they eat, since a bad bout of gastro, while usually not serious for mom, can sometimes cause serious problems for her baby. Most infectious causes don’t directly affect your baby, but certain bacteria such as listeria and salmonella can directly cross the placenta and cause harm. If you begin to experience more severe symptoms such as fever, bloody diarrhea, dehydration, or any changes in fetal movement, you should contact your doctor at once.
Fortunately, severe cases are not common and most pregnant women can get through those uncomfortable days with simple home remedies and foods, as well as a few safe over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. The most important goal is to stay hydrated, as you can quickly lose a lot of water from vomiting and diarrhea. However, water alone doesn’t replenish your body’s much needed salt and sugars. The best options are the Oral Rehydration Salt (ORS) packages available in local clinics and pharmacies. If you suffer from nausea and vomiting, try the usual safe pregnancy options for nausea, such as ginger and vitamin B6. If you start to feel too dehydrated, or especially if you feel a change in your baby’s movements, you should immediately see your doctor.
Pregnant women should also note that the OTC medicine most people commonly use to stop diarrhea (loperamide, aka Imodium) is not recommended for them, especially if they have bloody diarrhea. Safer OTC alternatives for pregnant women include Medilac-S, which is a capsule of "good" bacteria, and Smecta, a charcoal-based powder which can clear infections more quickly and is not absorbed in your body.
To avoid getting gastroenteritis in the first place, pregnant women should take special care with food hygiene. To prevent the more serious listeria infection, pregnant women should avoid certain foods: refrigerated pâté, processed and cold meats, unpasteurized dairy foods and soft cheeses, and cold, raw or smoked seafood.
Those of you with an ayi should make sure that she understands the "Five Keys to Safer Food," a set of simple guidelines for people who handle and prepare food; the World Health Organization has a great hanout in Chinese which you can give to her. It is available at www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/consumer/5keys.