The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million foodborne illness cases occur in the United States every year. At least 128,000 Americans are hospitalized, and 3,000 die after eating contaminated food.

– The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

carrot-1085063_1280Foodborne illness (also known as “food poisoning,” “foodborne disease,” or “foodborne infection) is a widespread public health concern. Annually, one in six Americans falls ill after eating food contaminated with pathogens, chemicals, viruses, or bacteria. Other substances may also cause foodborne illness in rare instances. To date, scientists have discovered more than 250 variations of foodborne diseases.

Foodborne illness specifically affects the gastrointestinal system. The most common symptoms of foodborne illness include abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Because of the wide variety of foodborne illnesses and people’s unique responses to these conditions, the symptoms often vary.

The federal government estimates that, of the 48 million cases of foodborne illness per year, 128,000 of them result in hospitalization and 3,000 end in death. And, while everyone is vulnerable to foodborne illness, certain classes of people remain at greater risk.

This article examines the potential risks and outcomes of several high-risk demographics. Numerous sources show that certain classes of people are higher prone relative to the serious consequences of foodborne illness than are others.

Among the high-risk groups are young children, elderly adults, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems. These demographics are more likely to contract foodborne illness, experience longer durations of sickness, require hospitalization, or die from health complications.

Although safe food-handling practices are a basic way for everyone to stay healthy, they are particularly important for those in high-risk groups. This article will examine specific preventative practices that can significantly decrease the likelihood of contracting the illness.

Pregnant Women

pregnant womanDuring pregnancy, the efficacy of a woman’s immune system often diminishes. This makes her vulnerable to contracting illnesses, including contamination from food sources. And complications from foodborne illness are not limited to the woman, as bacteria and other pathogens are often able to permeate the placenta and infect the unborn baby. At such an early juncture, the child’s undeveloped immune system is incapable of warding off an attack.

In some instances, pregnant women who contract foodborne illness may experience miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature delivery, and newborn children may become ill. On rare occasions, food poisoning can cause the death of a newborn child.

Elderly Adults

Similar to pregnant women, adults of advanced age often have a weakened immune system. As people grow older, their immune systems become less capable of distinguishing and eradicating illness-causing bacteria, viruses, and pathogens.

Further complicating an impaired immune system is the presence of other, unrelated conditions that are more common in older populations. Chronic diseases, including arthritis, cancer, diabetes, or heart-related problems have a detrimental effect on a person’s immune system, thereby increasing the likelihood of that person contracting foodborne illness and/or experiencing serious health consequences as a result.

This demographic also tends to consume prescription medications at higher rates than younger populations do, and some of these substances are known to weaken the immune system and further increase the odds of contracting foodborne illness. Lastly, because older adults have a lesser amount of stomach acid—an important chemical in eliminating bacteria from the gastrointestinal tract—the probability of contracting a foodborne-related illness is increased even further.

Young Children

childrenStatistics have shown that young children are more likely to contract foodborne illness, particularly pathogen-related variations of the illness, than the general population. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, children under the age of 5 predominantly contract eight of the 10 most common bacteria and parasites responsible for foodborne illness.

The most frequent cause of foodborne-related illness in young children is Salmonella, which accounts for 40 percent of bacteria-related physician’s visits. Furthermore, Salmonella poisoning is responsible for approximately 60 percent this age group’s hospitalizations and fatalities.

Norovirus infections are also commonly reported foodborne illnesses in young children. In a recent study, norovirus-based food poisoning led to more than 14,000 hospitalizations, 281,000 emergency room visits, and 627,000 outpatient visits for children in this age group. Due to the extent of required medical care, some estimate annual treatment costs for these illnesses at nearly $273 million.


People can prevent most cases of foodborne illness, including cases that affect vulnerable demographics. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends following four basic precautions:

  1. Clean—Wash your hands and the surfaces where you prepare food.
  2. Separate—Compartmentalize raw foods to prevent cross-contamination.
  3. Cook—Heat and cook foods to recommended, safe temperatures.
  4. Chill—Properly refrigerate and store all leftover food.