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What You Need to Know About Preventing and Treating Food Poisoning in the Elderly

Crystal Jo
By Crystal JoApril 8, 2019

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 1 out of 6 Americans will have food poisoning each year. The elderly are unfortunately at a higher risk of eating contaminated food and have a harder time fighting off food poisoning.

Learn more about food poisoning in the elderly and how to prevent and treat food poisoning complications in parents and senior loved ones.

Food Poisoning in the Elderly

Food is meant to heal, nourish and provide the body with energy, but in the wrong circumstances, food can be poison for the body.

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Food poisoning is what happens when you drink or eat something that has bacteria, parasites, toxins or viruses that will make you sick. The food can be contaminated before it reaches you or it can pick up germs while it is being prepared.

Food poisoning can cause:

  • Gut-wrenching diarrhea and nausea
  • High raging fever
  • Painful stomach cramps
  • Stiff, sore joints and muscles

The U.S. National Library of Health states that some of the most common types of food poisoning are caused by these bacteria:

  1. Campylobacter.
  2. E.coli.
  3. Salmonella.
  4. Staphylococcus aureus.

If you have ever had food poisoning, you will never want to experience it again. Food poisoning is hazardous to health, especially in the elderly.

Food Poisoning Symptoms

After the body experiences food poisoning, it will try to react quickly to get the poison out of its system. Because the food is in the digestive system, that will be the first place to be emptied.

Each type of food poisoning has a different timeline for when symptoms appear. Most symptoms will appear within a few hours to up to 48 hours after the contaminated food has been eaten. Violent diarrhea, stomach cramps and vomiting are the strongest symptoms.

Most people will start to recover from food poisoning within a few hours or days, but those over the age of 65 are not so lucky. The elderly are more likely to be ill longer and experience a need to go to the hospital. Some seniors may even die.

As we age, it is natural for the immune system to become less able to fight off invading germs. Food begins to move more slowly through the intestines and stomach, which gives germs more time to grow. The kidneys and liver also may not be able to flush out toxins as easily.

It is also common for our senses to be weaker as we age, ensuring that we can’t rely on sight, smell or taste to know if food is safe to eat. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that the elderly may not be as careful in preparing food as they once were. The Nursing Times reported that people over the age of 60 are more likely to eat food that has expired or hasn’t been properly cooked or refrigerated.

How to Prevent Food Poisoning in the Elderly

But your parent or senior loved one still needs to eat, so follow these four basic steps in order to prevent your loved one from getting food poisoning:

1. Chill.

If not eating food right away, put the food away. Keep frozen food frozen until ready to eat and perishable food in the fridge. Always thaw refrigerated food in the microwave.

2. Clean.

Most germs are weak to good, old-fashioned washing. Wash countertops, cutting boards, hands and utensils with soapy, warm water. As well, rinse any fresh fruit and vegetables under cold, running water.

3. Cook.

Heat can kill the germs that make us sick. Make sure that the food being eaten has been heated to a safe temperature all the way through. This chart gives a list of what temperatures for which foods.

4. Separate.

Eggs, poultry, raw meat and seafood do not play well with other foods. Keep them separate until they are cooked!

Other tips for seniors include:

  • Always use a food thermometer
  • Ask for help from family and friends with meals
  • Consider having pre-made meals brought in
  • Label any leftover food with a date
  • Wear glasses and use good lighting when preparing food

How to Treat Food Poisoning

Despite precautions, a parent could still get hit with an unexpected case of food poisoning. It is important that you help your senior loved one prevent dehydration while the body is flushing out the toxins. So continue to offer your loved one sips of electrolyte-replacing drinks and water, even if it will just come back up. Once your loved one’s stomach settles, try providing small amounts of bland food and allow them to rest and rebuild their strength.

Pay close attention to your parent during this time, as food poisoning symptoms can get dangerous quickly. Reach out to a doctor right away if your loved one is frail, over the age of 75, has diabetes, heart disease or kidney disease.

The U.S. National Library of Health also recommends seeing a doctor if your parent:

  1. Has been vomiting for over 12 hours.
  2. Has blood in their stool.
  3. Has diarrhea for more than five days.
  4. Has a fever.
  5. Is unable to drink fluids.
  6. May have had contaminated fish, mushrooms or seafood.

Food poisoning is not a condition to brush off and safe food handling practices can keep your senior loved one healthy.

What has your experience with food poisoning been like? What other suggestions do you have for helping a parent or senior loved one avoid food poisoning? We’d like to hear your tips in the comments below.

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Crystal Jo
Crystal Jo
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