Why Are the Elderly More Vulnerable to Food Poisoning?

Phil Mitchell MD, MS
Medically reviewed by Phil Mitchell MD, MSSeptember 29th, 2020
Why Are the Elderly More Vulnerable to Food Poisoning?

It might start with a general feeling of weakness and a lack of energy, what some people call “a case of the blahs.” As the hours pass, you experience additional symptoms such as chills, fever, and a headache. You wonder if this is the start of the flu as you sit in your recliner, shivering beneath a blanket. And then the nausea hits. Before long, you’re in the bathroom hoping the worst will be over soon. Although all these symptoms can be the result of a stomach virus, in this case, it’s actually food poisoning. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) 48 million Americans get sick from foodborne illnesses each year. Among those, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. The elderly are particularly vulnerable to food poisoning. Not only do they contract foodborne illnesses at a higher rate than other segments of society, they are also more likely to need prolonged medical attention because of it. In fact, the CDC notes that nearly half of people 65 or older who have been diagnosed with a foodborne illness caused by Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria, or E. coli need to be hospitalized.

Risk Factors

Although anyone at any age can fall victim to food poisoning, the elderly are more at risk for a number of reasons. Older adults’ immune systems are not as robust as they once were. This makes it harder to fight off bacteria, parasites, and other pathogens. Seniors also have less stomach acid, resulting in slower digestion and diminished resistance to foreign bacteria. What’s more, weakened kidneys – a common condition among the elderly – are not as effective in filtering toxins out of the blood as healthy kidneys. This means once contracted, food poisoning can be difficult to recover from and may reoccur.

Other factors that make the elderly more vulnerable to food poisoning include:

  • Poor eyesight and sense of smell – Eating spoiled food is a leading cause of food poisoning. Expiration dates are intended to alert consumers when a product should be thrown out, but these labels are small and difficult to read even for many younger adults. Seniors who can’t make out the expiration date often resort to the sniff test for foods like milk and meat. Unfortunately, this is far from foolproof, especially if their sense of smell isn’t as sharp as it once was.
  • Use of medications – It’s not unusual for older adults to take a number of medications daily.

    Corticosteroids and TNF inhibitors used to treat conditions such as arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease can weaken the immune system and increase the chance of bacterial infection.

  • Lifestyle choices – Seniors living on a fixed income may be reluctant to throw out food, even if it is past its use-by date. They may also continue to eat leftovers until they’re gone, regardless of how long they’ve been in the refrigerator. In 2009, The Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK noted a sharp increase in the number of Listeria cases, many of which were in people over the age of 60. Speculation at the time was that ignoring expiration dates was one possible reason for the uptick.

The Dangers of Food Poisoning

In most cases, otherwise healthy victims of food poisoning recover in two or three days. However, there are times when this condition can lead to complications that become dangerous or even life-threatening, especially for the elderly. In addition to the physical strain associated with fever and muscle cramps, the most serious complication is dehydration caused by vomiting and diarrhea. Left untreated, the loss of fluids and electrolytes will eventually lead to organ failure, but even moderate dehydration can cause weakness, lethargy, an increased heart rate, and even delirium. It can also trigger a sudden drop in blood pressure and a loss of consciousness.

Dehydration should be treated by consuming clear fluids. If nausea is still an issue, sipping flat ginger ale and clear broths is a good first step. If those are tolerated, you can move on to frozen water or ice pops, or sports drinks such as Gatorade. In severe cases, however, intravenous fluids may be necessary to rehydrate.

How to Prevent Food Poisoning

Although it’s impossible to completely eliminate any possibility of food poisoning, it is an extremely preventable illness. By taking a few simple precautions, you can greatly reduce the odds of being laid low by a stomach bug. In terms of food preparation, the CDC recommends following these four simple steps:


Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during, and after preparing food as well as before eating. Antibacterial soap isn’t necessary. As long as you do a thorough job, any bacteria on your skin will simply slide off and down the drain. Also, wash your utensils, cutting boards, and countertops with hot, soapy water, and rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water.


Cross contamination is a common danger in the kitchen. Foods like raw meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs can spread germs to other products. The solution is to keep everything separated. Use separate cutting boards for each item, store each one in its own container away from other foods in the refrigerator, and don’t let their juices come in contact with anything else.


Undercooked food will not get to a high enough internal temperature to kill the bacteria that can make you sick. Don’t rely on color and texture to determine if that pork chop or salmon steak is done to perfection. The only way to know for sure is to use a food thermometer. There are many online charts you can consult to determine the proper internal temperatures for all your favorite dishes.


Keep your refrigerator below 40°F. Check the temperature at least every six months to make sure it’s still providing adequate temperature control. Thaw frozen food either in the refrigerator or the microwave. Don’t leave them to warm on the counter. Bacteria will begin to multiply in the parts of the food that reach room temperature first.

One last tip: unless you’re going straight home from a restaurant, don’t ask for a doggy bag. Even an hour in a hot car is enough for leftovers to spoil.

A New Option to Get Treatment From Home

With all the recent stories about food recalls due to contamination, it’s more important than ever to be diligent when it comes to what we consume. If you’re under the weather due to food poisoning or some other common ailment, you want to feel better as quickly as possible. You could drag yourself to a doctor’s office or urgent care center, but if the thought of driving across town, fighting traffic, and sitting for who-knows-how-long in a waiting room turns your stomach, why not bring a professional medical care team to you?

[availability_widget] At

DispatchHealth we’ll send out one of our qualified medical teams to treat you in the comfort of your own home. Our advanced care services can conveniently be requested via phone, mobile app, or online and our emergency care providers typically arrive at your doorstep within a few hours. They can treat your dehydration symptoms with anti-nausea medication if appropriate, test your electrolyte levels and even administer IV fluids. Best of all, we’re partnered with most insurance companies to make it affordable, and even accept Medicare and Medicaid.

For seniors, this modern day house call helps provide peace of mind. We go above and beyond by providing a detailed report to each patient’s living community, home health agency and/or primary care physician, in addition to electronically sending prescriptions to a patient’s pharmacy if needed.

So the next time you find yourself dreading the thought of heading to your local emergency room, stay put and get medical care delivered instead.


DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/people-at-risk-food-poisoning.html
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/infections/immune-system.html
  3. https://www.nhs.uk/news/older-people/elderly-take-listeria-gamble/
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/prevention/basic-food-safety.html
The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.

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