How to Manage Food Poisoning in Older Adults?
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Management of Food Poisoning in Older Adults - An Overview

Published on Jan 20, 2023 and last reviewed on May 30, 2023   -  4 min read


Older adults can get hospitalized due to food poisoning because of age-related weakening of immunity and impaired functioning of the organ systems.


Anyone can get food poisoning, but aged individuals are more likely to get hospitalized or die due to the same. With age, organs and body systems undergo many changes. The immunity gets weakened, and the body finds it challenging to eliminate organisms that cause infections and illness. Usually, healthy individuals recover from mild to moderate food poisoning on their own. But it could be hard to get an easy recovery in the case of older adults.

Why Do Older Adults Have an Increased Risk of Food Poisoning?

The adults, mainly those over 60 years, are more likely to get severe food poisoning or infections. It is primarily due to the following reasons:

  • The body's disease-fighting mechanism or defense mechanism gets affected due to a weakening immune system.

  • The digestive process gets altered, and the stomach holds the food for a prolonged period, allowing bacteria to develop within the contents causing infections.

  • The liver and kidney are usually responsible for removing waste materials and toxins. The altered working of both organs causes inadequate removal of foreign bodies or toxins.

  • The amount of acid produced by the stomach may get reduced with age. Acid can reduce the number of bacteria.

  • Chronic conditions like cancer or diabetes (increased blood sugar level) may also increase the chance of getting food poisoning.

  • Medications like Corticosteroids and immunosuppressants can also make the person more prone to food poisoning.

What Is Food Poisoning?

Foodborne illness occurs when the person consumes contaminated (getting infected by toxic organisms like viruses, bacteria, parasites, or fungi) food. The organisms as such or their toxic byproducts may be responsible for food poisoning. Whenever an individual consumes a toxic product, the body tends to get rid of that. As a result, the person may go through symptoms like diarrhea, fever, or vomiting. The symptoms may be uncomfortable, but it is the body's way of getting the person back to a healthy state.

Once the contaminated food gets consumed, the stomach lining may get inflamed, leading to gastroenteritis. Gastroenteritis is a sign that the immune system got activated to fight against infection. It may be hard to notice where the infection came from because it usually takes more than two days to develop the symptoms. But it can be identified by tracking the foods consumed typically associated with poisoning or identifying if someone else also got similar symptoms.

What Causes Food Poisoning?

Eating or drinking contaminated food, water or beverages can cause food poisoning. Contamination can happen at any stage of food production, from harvesting to storage to preparation or cooking. It occurs when food is not fresh or washed well. Food can also lead to contamination when not handled in a proper sanitary way or not cooked to a safe temperature. Improper food storage, inadequate refrigeration, and freezing can contaminate the food.

Raw eggs, undercooked poultry, beef, pork, and processed meat may contain Salmonella, causing bacterial food poisoning. Salmonella is the most common cause of bacterial food poisoning. E. coli (Escherichia coli), found in raw vegetables and undercooked meat, releases a toxin that causes food poisoning. Undercooked shellfish, green leafy vegetables, and fresh fruits may contain Norovirus, which can cause viral poisoning. Staphylococcus aureus contaminated milk, meat, and dairy products by touching them with contaminated hands.

What Are the Signs of Food Poisoning?

The symptoms of food poisoning may vary with the source of infection. The most common symptoms of food poisoning are:

  • Nausea.

  • Vomiting.

  • Diarrhea.

  • Stomach pain.

  • Headache.

  • Stomach cramping.

  • Fever.

  • Weakness.

  • Bloody stool.

The signs of the poisoning can start within one hour and may sometimes take weeks to develop. Symptoms may last several days to weeks, and the infection can spread if others have had the same contaminated food. Germs can also spread through tiny particles of vomitus or poop.

When to See a Doctor?

The symptoms may stay prolonged or may get worse in older adults. Seeking immediate medical attention is essential in the following cases:

  • The person experiences severe vomiting and dehydration.

  • Blood in vomit or stool.

  • Severe stomach pain or cramps.

  • Extreme diarrhea leading to weakness.

  • High fever.

  • Neurological symptoms like muscle weakness, blurry vision, or tingling sensation.

The healthcare provider may ask about the symptoms and the history of food consumed in the past hours or days. Stool and blood samples may be collected to check for the presence of poison-causing organisms.

How to Treat Food Poisoning in the Elderly?

Food poisoning can be treated by replacing electrolytes and fluids to treat dehydration caused by fluid loss due to vomiting and diarrhea. Drinking plenty of water is essential. In case of vomiting, the person may feel nauseous while drinking, and taking small sips of clear liquids may be helpful. Drinking water, sports drinks, broth, and fruit juices can be considered to treat dehydration. Oral rehydration solution contains glucose and electrolytes and is an effective remedy to manage lost fluids and electrolytes.

Once the cause is determined, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics for certain food poisoning. Over-the-counter medications like Loperamide (antidiarrheal) can also be used in some cases. Antibiotics should only be taken if prescribed by the doctor. Doctors may also prescribe probiotics. Probiotics are live microbes similar to those in the digestive tract and help prevent diarrhea.

How to Prevent Food Poisoning?

Prevention is better than cure. The following methods can help to prevent the occurrence of food poisoning.

  • Store raw meat, poultry, and seafood separately.

  • Refrigerate and freeze foods that may get spoiled.

  • Wash hands with soap and water before and after handling food.

  • Wash vegetables and fruits before usage.

  • Cook meat and seafood long and at high temperatures to kill microbes.

  • Wash utensils and surfaces often.


Foodborne diseases can happen to anyone and at any age. Taking proper care of hygiene and handling food can prevent food poisoning to an extent. But if symptoms are severe, it is essential to seek medical help to test the condition and treat it.

Last reviewed at:
30 May 2023  -  4 min read




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