People at Special Risk For Foodborne Illness

Some people are at a higher risk for foodborne illness. Often, this is because they have an immune system that is not working as well as that of a healthy adult. This might be due to an illness or aging reducing the full function of the immune system, or that the immune system is not yet fully developed such as in a fetus, in infants or in very young children.

The immune system is the system that fights disease in our bodies. People with impaired immune systems are more likely to get sick from a food that is contaminated with bacteria or other microorgan­isms. In addition, they are more likely to suffer the more serious side effects from foodborne illness, including meningitis from listeriosis, or arthritis from salmonellosis.  Immune compromised individuals are also more likely to die from a foodborne illness than a person with a healthy and strong immune system.

Who is at special risk for foodborne illness?

  • Pregnant women
  • Infants and young children under the age of five
  • The elderly
  • People with weakened immune sys­tems due to:
    • chronic illness such as cancer, diabetes, kidney or liver disease or HIV/AIDS
    • treatments such as chemotherapy or immunosuppressive drugs
    • organ transplants

Though food safety rules and guidelines for immunocompromised individuals are not really different from those for healthy individuals, it is more critical for these individuals to follow the rules in order to maintain their health and wellbeing.   Whether you are immune compromised or preparing food for a family member who is, keep these in mind.

Food safety rules

  • Only buy dairy products labeled “pasteurized.”   Avoid soft cheeses that may be made from unpasteurized milk, such as brie, camembert, chevre (goat cheese) or feta.
  • Some people at risk may have to avoid deli products such as cold cuts or salads. Check with your doctor about these products.
  • Buy only pasteurized apple cider and fruit juices.
  • Follow label instructions on products that must be refrigerated or that have a "use by" date or "sell by" date.
  • Always wash your hands before preparing food or eating.
  • Thoroughly wash all raw fruits and vegetables with running water (even if you plan to peel them).
  • After you have handled or cut raw meat, poultry or seafood, or raw eggs, wash your hands, the cutting board, counter, knives, and any other utensils you used with hot soapy water before you use them again to prepare other foods.
  • Never eat raw meat, poultry or seafood, especially shellfish. These foods must be thoroughly cooked to be safe.
  • Do not eat raw or undercooked eggs or food products such as Caesar salad, eggnog or homemade ice cream or mayonnaise that may contain raw eggs.
  • Chill leftovers in the refrigerator as soon as possible, within two hours of preparation. Keep cold foods refrigerated.
  • Reheat leftovers until steaming hot, at least 165°F.
  • Keep the kitchen clean and sanitized, including the inside of the refrigerator.
  • When eating out of the home, make sure hot foods are served hot and cold foods are served cold.  Ask to have all eggs, meat, poultry and fish cooked thoroughly, using a food thermometer to test for doneness if possible.  Be especially wary of ground beef dishes, egg dishes, chicken and seared fish dishes.
  • If traveling abroad, be sensitive to food and water safety.  In some countries it may only be safe to drink bottled/processed beverages and water; it may be prudent to avoid raw fruits and vegetables as well.

Remember, if you or a family member are in any of the high-risk groups or care for someone in one of these groups, and think there is a possibility of food poison­ing, call the doctor immediately.

Want to learn more?

Food safety for at-risk populations, including pregnant women; those with cancer, HIV/AIDs, or diabetes; transplant recipients; very young children; and older adults.