Listeria Monocytogenes Infection (Listeriosis)



Listeria monocytogenes, which causes listeriosis, is an important pathogen in pregnant patients, neonates, elderly individuals, and immunocompromised individuals, although it is an uncommon cause of illness in the general population. Patients with cancer, particularly those of blood, are also at high risk for listeriosis.[1] See the image below.

View Image

Electron micrograph of an artificially colored Listeria bacterium in tissue.

It is typically a food-borne organism. Listeria is also a common veterinary pathogen, being associated with abortion and encephalitis in sheep and cattle. It can be isolated from soil, water, and decaying vegetation.

The most common clinical manifestation is diarrhea. A mild presentation of fever, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea may resemble a gastrointestinal illness.[2] The microorganism has gained recognition because of its association with epidemic gastroenteritis. In 1997, an outbreak of noninvasive gastroenteritis occurred in 2 schools in northern Italy, involving more than 1500 children and adults.[3]

Bacteremia and meningitis are more serious manifestations of disease that can affect individuals at high risk. Unless recognized and treated, Listeria infections can result in significant morbidity and mortality.


L monocytogenes is a motile, non–spore-forming, gram-positive bacillus that has aerobic and facultatively anaerobic characteristics. It grows best at neutral to slightly alkaline pH and is capable of growth at a wide range of temperatures, from 1-45°C. It is beta-hemolytic and has a blue-green sheen on blood-free agar. It exhibits characteristic tumbling motility when viewed with light microscopy and is difficult to isolate in mixed cultures. It may be mistaken for streptococci or contaminants such as corynebacteria.

Most infections occur after oral ingestion, with access to the systemic circulation after intestinal penetration. Protection against Listeria is mediated via lymphokine activation of T cells on macrophages and by interleukin-18.

CNS infection may manifest as meningitis, meningoencephalitis, or abscess. Endocarditis is another possible presentation. Localized infection may manifest as septic arthritis, osteomyelitis, and, rarely, pneumonia.



United States

The frequency of L monocytogenes infection is 2.9 cases per million population, with higher incidences in elderly individuals and pregnant women. Annually, 2500 cases are reported, with higher incidence rates during the summer months.[4] Pregnant women account for 27% of all cases, and most occur during the third trimester. Seventy percent of all nonperinatal infections occur in immunocompromised patients. Corticosteroid therapy is the most important predisposing association in patients who are not pregnant. Other risk factors include advanced age, recent chemotherapy, diabetes mellitus, end-stage renal disease, liver disease, and organ transplantation.[5]

Nosocomial infection has been reported.


The overall mortality rate of L monocytogenes infection is 15%-20%. Listeria accounts for 19% of all deaths due to food-borne infection.

Of all pregnancy-related cases, 22% resulted in fetal loss or neonatal death, but mothers usually survive.


With the exception of pregnant women, no sex predilection is recognized.


Women of childbearing age are commonly affected.

Neonates and elderly individuals are at risk.


L monocytogenes infection may be a self-limited gastrointestinal tract illness or a more severe CNS infection, bacteremia, or a localized infection such as monoarticular septic arthritis.


Examination depends on the organ system involved.

Listeriosis in pregnancy [6, 7]

Listeria may proliferate in the placenta and cause infection due to impaired cell-mediated immunity during pregnancy.

CNS infection is very rare during pregnancy, although it is observed frequently in other compromised hosts.

Fever, myalgias, arthralgias, back pain, and headache are classic symptoms of bacteremia. Symptoms may mimic those of a flulike illness. The infection may be mild and self-limited.

Listeriosis during pregnancy usually occurs during the third trimester, when cell-mediated immunity is at its lowest.

Preterm labor and/or delivery is common. Abortion, stillbirth, and intrauterine infection are possible.

Neonatal infection (granulomatosis infantisepticum)

Two forms are described.[6]

Early-onset sepsis, with Listeria acquired in utero via transplacental transmission, results in premature birth. Listeria can be isolated in the placenta, blood, meconium, nose, ears, and throat, among other sites, and manifests as abscesses and/or granulomas.

Late-onset meningitis is acquired through vaginal transmission, although it also has been reported with cesarean deliveries.

CNS infection [8]

Listeria has a predilection for the brain parenchyma, especially the brain stem, and the meninges.

Mental status changes are common.

Seizures, both focal and generalized, occur in at least 25% of patients.

Cranial nerve deficits may be present.

Strokelike syndromes with hemiplegia may occur.

Nuchal rigidity is less common.

Movement disorders may include tremor, myoclonus, and ataxia.

Patients may present with encephalitis, especially of the brainstem.[9]

Meningitis is possible.

Ventriculitis, particularly of the fourth ventricle, may develop.

Cervical myelitis has been reported.[10]

Brain abscess occurs in 10% of CNS infections, often located in the thalamus, pons, and medulla. This uncommon complication is associated with high mortality.[11]

Febrile gastroenteritis [2]

L monocytogenes can produce food-borne diarrheal disease, which is typically noninvasive.

The median incubation period is 1-2 days, with diarrhea lasting anywhere from 1-3 days.

The prevalence of diarrheal illness is high in individuals exposed to inocula of Listeria.

Patients present with fever, myalgias, and diarrhea and recover with supportive care.


Most infections are due to food-borne transmission.

A substantial minority of infections are transmitted by other modes. Transmission can occur transplacentally or via an infected birth canal. Isolated incidences of cross-infection in neonatal nurseries have been reported.

Nosocomial infection, while rare, has been reported.

Laboratory Studies

Blood cultures should be performed. Blood culture results are positive in 60-75% of patients with CNS infections.

Listeria demonstrates "tumbling motility" in wet mounts of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Listeria organisms are motile in wet mounts of CSF.

CSF Gram stain results are positive in less than 50% of patients. CSF analysis reveals pleocytosis, and CSF protein levels are moderately elevated. CSF glucose levels may be low, and if so, are associated with a poor prognosis.

Laboratory results that show diphtheroids should prompt heightened awareness for the possibility of Listeria infection, particularly in immunocompromised patients.

CSF cultures are positive less frequently than blood cultures.

A commercially available PCR test has been developed for CSF analysis.

Serologic testing is not reliable.

Synovial fluid and/or prosthetic joint material should be cultured in cases of septic arthritis.

Stool cultures are neither sensitive nor specific.

Imaging Studies

MRI is superior to CT scan for demonstrating CNS disease, especially in the brainstem.[12]

Transesophageal echocardiography should be performed if endocarditis is suspected.


Lumbar puncture should be performed if CSF infection is suspected.

Medical Care

Intravenous antibiotics must be started immediately when the diagnosis is suspected or confirmed.

Diagnosis is established by culture of the organism from blood, CSF, or other sterile body fluid.

Person-to-person transmission does not occur; therefore, isolation precautions are not necessary.

Surgical Care

There have been case reports of L monocytogenes –associated bone and joint infections, but information is scarce. A 2012 retrospective study of 43 patients found that osteoarticular listeriosis primarily involves prosthetic joints and occurs in immunocompromised patients. In cases of periprosthetic joint infection, optimal therapy includes surgical removal of the prosthetic joint.[13]


Listeriosis may be sporadic or may be part of a larger epidemic. The table below lists some of the most recent epidemics. Consultation with an infectious disease specialist or an epidemiologist is important when epidemic listeriosis is suspected.

Table. Epidemic Listeriosis

View Table

See Table


The following are measures that can be used to prevent listeriosis:

Medication Summary

Antibiotic therapy is the treatment of choice for listeriosis. Bacteremia should be treated for 2 weeks if the patient is immunocompetent. Longer courses may be required in the immunocompromised patient. Meningitis should be treated for 3 weeks; endocarditis, for 4-6 weeks; and brain abscess, for at least 6 weeks. Ampicillin is generally considered the preferred agent, but other agents may be acceptable. Gentamicin is added frequently for synergy, but it may be discontinued after 1 week of clinical improvement in order to decrease the chance of renal toxicity or ototoxicity.[22]

Glucocorticoids have not demonstrated benefit in Listeria meningitis.[23]

Ampicillin (Omnipen, Marcillin)

Clinical Context:  Ampicillin is the drug of choice. It interferes with bacterial cell wall synthesis during active multiplication, causing bactericidal activity against susceptible organisms.


Clinical Context:  Gentamicin is an adjunctive therapy that can be used in conjunction with ampicillin. It is an aminoglycoside antibiotic that interferes with bacterial protein synthesis by binding to the 30S and 50S ribosomal subunits. Dosing regimens are numerous and are adjusted based on creatinine clearance and changes in volume of distribution, as well as the body space into which the agent needs to distribute. Gentamicin may be given iIV/IM. Each regimen must be followed by at least a trough level drawn on the third or fourth dose, 0.5 hour before dosing; a peak level may be drawn 0.5 hour after a 30-minute infusion.

Trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim)

Clinical Context:  This agent is indicated for patients unable to take penicillin antibiotics. It inhibits bacterial synthesis of dihydrofolic acid by competing with paraaminobenzoic acid, which results in inhibition of bacterial growth.

Class Summary

Empiric antimicrobial therapy must be comprehensive and should cover all likely pathogens in the context of the clinical setting.

What is listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis)?What is the pathophysiology of listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis)?What is the prevalence of listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis) in the US?What are the mortality rates for listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis)?What is the sexual predilection of listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis)?Which patient groups have the highest prevalence of listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis)?What are the signs and symptoms of listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis)?Which physical findings are characteristic of listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis) during pregnancy?Which physical findings are characteristic of listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis) in neonates?Which CNS findings are characteristic of listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis)?Which physical findings are characteristic of febrile gastroenteritis in listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis)?What causes listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis)?What are the differential diagnoses for Listeria Monocytogenes Infection (Listeriosis)?What is the role of lab testing in the diagnosis of listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis)?What is the role of imaging studies in the diagnosis of listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis)?What is the role of lumbar puncture in the diagnosis of listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis)?How is listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis) treated?What is the role of surgery in the treatment of listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis)?How common are listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis) epidemics?How is listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis) prevented?What is the role of antibiotic therapy in the treatment of listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis)?Which medications in the drug class Antibiotics are used in the treatment of Listeria Monocytogenes Infection (Listeriosis)?


Karen B Weinstein, MD, FACP, Associate Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Rush University Medical Center

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editors

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD, Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Joseph F John, Jr, MD, FACP, FIDSA, FSHEA, Clinical Professor of Medicine, Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine; Associate Chief of Staff for Education, Ralph H Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Michael Stuart Bronze, MD, David Ross Boyd Professor and Chairman, Department of Medicine, Stewart G Wolf Endowed Chair in Internal Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Oklahoma Health Science Center; Master of the American College of Physicians; Fellow, Infectious Diseases Society of America; Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, London

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Mark R Wallace, MD, FACP, FIDSA, Infectious Disease Physician, Skagit Valley Hospital, Skagit Regional Health

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


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Electron micrograph of an artificially colored Listeria bacterium in tissue.

Electron micrograph of an artificially colored Listeria bacterium in tissue.

Year Location Source
2017South AfricaProcessed meat product (polony)
2014United StatesPrepackaged caramel apples
2011United StatesCantaloupe
2003United KingdomSandwiches
2002[14] United States (nationwide)Delicatessen turkey breast
August 1998 to January 1999Multiple states in the United StatesHot dogs, deli meats
1997[3] ItalyCorn
1997[15] SwedenRainbow trout
1995[16] SwitzerlandSoft cheese
1994[17] IllinoisChocolate milk
1992[18] FranceRillettes (pork product)
1985[19] CaliforniaMexican-style soft cheese
1983[20] New EnglandUnpasteurized milk
1981[21] CanadaColeslaw