How to avoid age-related food poisoning


Mechanisms of Drug Actions, Fall 2005Foodborne illness, often called food poisoning, is unpleasant and potentially serious for anyone– but it‘s especially dangerous for people over 65. Although people of every age can get food poisoning, older adults are more at risk, more likely to have a lengthy illness, undergo hospitalization, or even die.

The federal government estimates that there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illness annually — the equivalent of sickening 1 in 6 Americans. And each year, these illnesses result in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.

Age-Related Changes

As people age, normal changes in the body often increase the likelihood of catching a foodborne illness. The immune system is naturally weakened by age and various organs become sluggish in recognizing and ridding the body of harmful pathogens that cause infections, including those carried by food:

  • The stomach and intestinal tract may hold foods for a longer period of time
  • The liver and kidneys may not  get rid of toxins as readily; and,
  • By age 65, many people have been diagnosed with one or more chronic conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis, cancer, or heart disease, and are taking at least one medication. The side effects of some medications or chronic disease may weaken the immune system further, increasing susceptibility to foodborne illness.

To avoid food poisoning, older adults must be especially careful when choosing, handling, preparing, and consuming foods.

High Risk Foods to Avoid

  • Raw or undercooked meat or poultry
  • Raw fish, partially cooked seafood (such as shrimp and crab), and refrigerated smoked seafood
  • Raw shellfish (including oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops) and their juices
  • Unpasteurized (raw) milk and products, such as yogurt and cheese made with raw milk
  • Soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk, such as Feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined, and Mexican-style cheeses (such as such as Queso Fresco, Panela, Asadero, and Queso Blanco)
  • Raw or undercooked eggs or foods containing them, including certain homemade salad dressings (such as Caesar salad dressing), homemade cookie dough and cake batters, and homemade eggnog. (NOTE: Most pre-made foods from grocery stores, such as Caesar dressing, pre-made cookie dough, or packaged eggnog, are made with pasteurized eggs.)
  • Unwashed fresh vegetables, including lettuce/salads
  • Unpasteurized fruit or vegetable juices (These juices should have an “unpasteurized” label.)
  • Hot dogs, luncheon meats (cold cuts), fermented and dry sausage, and other deli-style meats, poultry products, and smoked fish — unless they are reheated until steaming hot
  • Salads (without added preservatives) prepared on site in a deli-type establishment, such as ham salad, chicken salad, or seafood salad
  • Unpasteurized, refrigerated pâtés or meat spreads
  • Raw sprouts (alfalfa, bean, or any other sprout)

Even low-risk foods require safe handling, cooking, and storage. Safe food handling should be a lifelong commitment for everyone, but especially for persons at greater risk, like older adults.