Food Poisoning: Are Older Adults At Greater Risk?

Raw meat sits on a cutting board.
(Image credit: Raw meat photo via Shutterstock)

"The Healthy Geezer" answers questions about health and aging in his weekly column.

Question: Are older people at greater risk of getting food poisoning?

Answer: The people at highest risk for suffering from food poisoning are seniors, pregnant women, young children, and those with chronic diseases.

When you age, your immune system may not respond as well to infectious organisms as it did when you were younger. During pregnancy, changes in metabolism and circulation can increase food poisoning risk. The immune systems of infants and young children are not fully developed. A chronic disease reduces your immune response.

Food poisoning is caused by eating food contaminated by organisms such as bacteria, viruses and parasites. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever. The onset of symptoms can occur hours after consumption of the tainted food. However, symptoms can take days and sometimes weeks to show up.

The following (in alphabetical order) are some possible food contaminants: Campylobacter, Clostridium botulinum, Clostridium perfringens, Escherichia coli (E. coli), Giardia lamblia, hepatitis A, Listeria, noroviruses, rotavirus, Salmonella, Shigella, Staphylococcus aureus, and Vibrio vulnificus.

And here are some of the sources: meat and poultry soiled by animal feces during processing, foods kept warm for too long, unpasteurized milk and apple cider, raw produce, contaminated water, improperly canned commercial foods, smoked or salted fish, cream sauces, undercooked ground beef, alfalfa sprouts, raw or undercooked shellfish, raw eggs, prepared salads and cream-filled pastries.

The symptoms of food poisoning usually diminish without help in about two days. However, some cases need treatment.

The treatment for food poisoning varies according to the source. For example, antibiotics are used to combat bacterial food poisoning.

Dehydration, which can be fatal, is the major complication of food poisoning because you lose fluids from vomiting and diarrhea. Older people and others with inadequate immune systems can become extremely dehydrated. Hospitalization for intravenous hydration may be necessary.

Diarrhea can be much more than an inconvenience. Diarrhea can be lethal to older people. With the fluid you lose from diarrhea, you also lose salts that your body needs. Diarrhea can make a victim pass more than a quart of watery stools a day.

Dehydration symptoms include thirst, reduced urination, dark urine, dry skin, fatigue, dizziness and fainting.

You should see a doctor if your diarrhea lasts more than 3 days, or if you have dehydration symptoms, severe abdominal or rectal pain, a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, or blood in your stools.

In many cases of diarrhea, the only treatment needed is replacing lost fluid and salts. Adults should consume broth, non-citrus fruit juices, flat ginger ale and ice pops.

As your condition improves, you can start eating bananas, plain rice, boiled potatoes, toast, crackers and cooked carrots. Smaller meals are recommended because they're easier to digest.

Here are some tips to prevent food poisoning:

  • Wash your hands, utensils and kitchen counters often.
  • Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood away from other foods.
  • Kill contaminants by cooking at a safe temperature. Use a thermometer to check the temperature. For example, fish is done at 145 degrees Fahrenheit, but ground beef should reach 160 degrees.
  • Refrigerate or freeze perishable foods within two hours of purchasing or preparing them.
  • Do not thaw foods at room temperature. Defrost foods in the refrigerator or microwave.
  • Wash all raw fruits, vegetables and herbs with cold, running water.
  • Cook eggs until they are solid.
  • When cooking meat or fish, don't reuse the plate that held them when they were raw.
  • When in doubt, throw it out.

Do not eat the following foods: anything that contains raw eggs such as cookie dough or hollandaise sauce, packaged foods with broken seals or cans that are bulging or dented, honey that hasn't been heat-treated, soft cheeses, alfalfa sprouts, raw ground beef or fish.

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All Rights Reserved © 2014 by Fred Cicetti

Fred Cicetti is a contributing writer for Live Science who specializes in health. He has been writing professionally since 1963. Before he began freelancing, he was a reporter, rewriteman and columnist for three daily newspapers in New Jersey: The Newark News, Newark Star-Ledger and Morristown Record. He has written two published novels:" Saltwater Taffy—A Summer at the Jersey Shore," and "Local Angles—Big News in Small Towns."