Raw oysters: Safe for moms-to-be?

I am seven weeks pregnant. I went on a trip to New Orleans and enjoyed lots of raw oysters. Now I'm concerned. Are raw oysters safe for moms-to-be?

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Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

Most likely there will not problems from eating the raw oysters. But for insurance sake, I advise you to not eat raw seafood of any kind during pregnancy. In the case of oysters, they may be contaminated in a couple of ways. One, which can be deadly, is contamination with a naturally occurring bacteria (not a result of pollution) called Vibrio vulnificus, found most often in the warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico. For most people, this bacteria would not cause problems, but for people with known or unknown underlying medical conditions, such as cancer, ulcers, diabetes, liver disease or HIV infection, eating contaminated oysters can cause serious illness and death (FDA). Cooking kills the bacteria, so fully cooked oysters are fine.

Symptoms of food poisoning from raw oysters due to the Vibrio bacteria often include one or more of the following: fever, chills, diarrhea, confusion, weakness, cellulitis (certain regions of the skin turning red and painful) and enlarging blood-filled or clear blisters that often appear on the legs. These symptoms will appear within five days of eating the contaminated seafood.

A different, less harmful type of the bacteria -- Vibrio parahaemolyticus -- is much more common, particularly on the West Coast. No deaths or long-term effects have been found from Vibrio parahaemolyticus. This type of bacteria causes flulike symptoms.

Certain viruses could also contaminate oysters, clams and mussels. These viruses may cause severe diarrhea in those who eat them. Cooking will kill these viruses as well.

The reason oysters may be contaminated with viruses and bacteria are due to the method in which they eat. Oysters are water filterers, obtaining their food through the water. In fact, an oyster can filter up to 100 gallons of water per day! Unfortunately, they may also come in contact with contaminants in the water supply. If you eat the oyster raw, you also eat the live bacteria or virus they contain.

Because pregnancy is no time for any illness -- and especially not one that is preventable -- it would be wise to skip raw oysters. Oysters are very nutritious, however, so go ahead and enjoy them cooked. They are low in fat and are one of the best food sources for zinc.

If you have more questions about the safety of raw oysters, give the FDA Seafood Hotline a call at 1-800-FDA-4010.

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