Every human being is susceptible to foodborne illness (i.e., food poisoning), as we all consume food. We are each different, however, in two important ways: (1) the odds of acquiring an illness, and (2) the body’s response once ill.

Foodborne illness is similar to other variations of chronic or acute illness, in that certain demographics are more at-risk for contraction than others. Additionally, the effects of foodborne illness are generally more severe for at-risk individuals.

This article identifies at-risk demographics for foodborne illness and provides rationales for this classification. Further, some helpful suggestions are provided that can help reduce the risk of foodborne illness for these (and other) individuals.

At-Risk Groups

People with Cancer

hospital patientPeople diagnosed with cancer are considered an at-risk group for acquiring foodborne illness. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines the immune system as “a network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect the body from infection.” As cancer often weakens the immune system, individuals with cancer are particularly susceptible to infection-causing bacteria and other pathogens.

Cancer may weaken the immune system in two ways: suppression of the blood cells that help fight infection, and complications from treatment. Cancer treatments (e.g. chemotherapy and radiation) often have a directly adverse effect on the body’s ability to ward off illness, a condition termed neutropenia. Many types of cancer medications also have the effect of suppressing the immune response.

People with Diabetes

In addition to an impaired immune response, diabetes can affect other body systems and increase the risk of foodborne illness. Having high blood glucose, for instance, effectively diminishes the infection-fighting capabilities of white blood cells, while insufficient production of stomach acid in the gastrointestinal tract may allow bacteria to proliferate. Generally, people with diabetes have weak kidneys – an important organ for cleansing the body of toxins – and this may also allow for bacteria to spread.

Adults Ages 65 and Older

seniorsAdults ages 65 and older are more prone to hospitalization and death as a result of food poisoning than the general population. Numerous organs responsible for basic bodily functions change as we age, potentially increasing the likelihood of becoming ill.

As a result of physical and/or internal changes, it is possible for the kidney and liver to become ineffective in expelling harmful bacteria. Also, the gastrointestinal (GI) tract of adults who are older keeps food in the gut for an increased length of time, thus giving bacteria more time to grow. Low levels of stomach acid may also allow for bacterial growth, increasing the chance of illness.

Women Who Are Pregnant

Women who are pregnant are another demographic at-risk for foodborne illness, due to the weakening of the immune system that takes place during this time. During pregnancy, it is common for foodborne illness symptoms to become more severe, which can lead to either miscarriage or premature delivery. Unfortunately, a pregnant woman with a foodborne illness may also pass it on to her unborn child, which can lead to complications such as severe health problems or even death.

Medical professionals advise against pregnant women consuming certain types of food, as these may increase the chances of becoming ill. For instance, undercooked meat and poultry, raw seafood, and unpasteurized dairy should be eliminated. Other types of food can be consumed, but with certain precautions. Seafood and eggs, for example, should be inspected and cooked thoroughly before consuming.

Young Children

childrenChildren under the age of 5 are considered an at-risk group for foodborne illness. During this time, children’s immune systems are still developing and not yet fully functional; thus, young children’s bodies are not able to as effectively eliminate bacteria and pathogens as adults’ bodies are. Children also have lower amounts of stomach acid to kill bacteria, which increases the likelihood of contracting foodborne illness.

Proportionately, as a result of their smaller bodies, children lose body fluids much more quickly than adults do. It can be dangerous if a child gets food poisoning or another foodborne illness because of the amount of fluid that is eliminated through vomiting and/or diarrhea.

Severe dehydration is considered a medical emergency and is a symptom that demands close attention if a child should get sick from food poisoning. Medical professionals recommend replenishing a child’s body with water frequently in the event of illness.

Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill

It is important for everyone to prioritize food safety, as it not only can impact our health, but the health of the ones we care for. Those considered at-risk should take additional safety precautions and consult with their doctor concerning dietary recommendations.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends four simple steps, “clean, separate, cook, chill,” to help prevent foodborne illness. First, clean and wash hands, surfaces and food before preparing. Next, separate raw meats and poultry (chicken) from produce and ready-to-eat foods. Third, ensure that food is cooked to the appropriate temperature, implementing a food thermometer if necessary. Last, store perishable foods in the freezer or refrigerator promptly.