Food safety is important for everyone – but it’s extremely important for individuals with a weakened immune system, which makes them especially vulnerable to foodborne illness. This guide is intended to help older adults and people with cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, organ transplants, or autoimmune diseases avoid foodborne infections.
In addition to the information in this booklet, talk with your health care provider about any foods or other products to avoid because of any special health needs you may have.
The Immune System: Its Importance
Your immune system is vital for your health because it defends your body against infectious organisms and other invaders. Spread throughout your body, the immune system is made up of a network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect you. When your immune system senses disease-causing organisms and other substances that invade the body, it responds to fight them off.
As people get older, their immune systems decline. Diseases such as cancer and diabetes can weaken the immune system. Also, medications for HIV/AIDS, organ transplants, and autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, weaken the immune system.
Food Safety: Why It’s Critical for People with a Weakened Immune System
When disease-causing bacteria, viruses, or parasites (germs) contaminate food, they can cause foodborne illness, often called food poisoning. While the food supply in the United States is among the safest in the world, it can still be a source of infection.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 million persons — or 1 of every 6 people get foodborne infections each year. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from their foodborne illness. People who have a weakened immune system have a higher risk for food poisoning. People with weakened immune systems are more likely to have a lengthier illness, undergo hospitalization, or even die as a result of foodborne disease.
- Older Adults — People 65 and older are at a higher risk for hospitalization and death from foodborne illness. This increased risk is because organs and body systems change as the body ages.
- The digestive system holds food longer, allowing bacteria to grow while the stomach may not produce enough acid to limit the number of intestinal bacteria.
- The liver and kidneys may not properly rid the body of foreign bacteria and toxins.
- Between 50 and 60, the immune system in most people begins to decline. After age 75, many adults have an immune system so weakened that their risk for contracting a foodborne illness increases while the ability of their bodies to fight the infection is lowered.
- People with Cancer — If it spreads into the bone marrow, cancer can weaken the immune system. Also, most cancer patients undergo therapy such as radiation, chemotherapy, and/or medications to help fight the disease. A side effect of these treatments is that they may weaken the immune system, making patients more vulnerable to infections like foodborne illnesses.
- People with Diabetes — The immune systems of the millions of people with diabetes in the United States may not readily recognize the bacteria and viruses that cause food poisoning. This delayed response places a person with diabetes at increased risk for infection. Also, diabetes may damage the cells that create stomach acid and the nerves that help the stomach and intestines move food through the normal digestive process. As result, the digestive tract may hold on to food for a longer time, allowing harmful bacteria and viruses to multiply. In addition, diabetes may cause the kidneys, which work to cleanse the body, to hold on to harmful bacteria, toxins, and other pathogens.
- People with HIV/AIDS — When the Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS) damages or destroys the immune system, individuals become more vulnerable to developing an infection, including a foodborne infection.
- People with Organ Transplants — A healthy immune system will try to reject or destroy an organ or bone marrow transplant – in the same way that the immune system works to clear infection from the body. Therefore, transplant recipients commonly take medications to keep rejection from happening. These drugs are called immunosuppressants because they suppress a person’s immune system to keep it from attacking, or rejecting transplanted organs or bone marrow. A side effect of immunosuppressants is that they leave patients more susceptible to developing infections – like those that can be brought on by the bacteria and viruses that cause foodborne illness.
- People with Autoimmune Diseases — Autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, and lupus are conditions in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body. People with autoimmune diseases are often treated with immunosuppressants, and they are more likely to get a foodborne illness because their immune systems can’t fight infection effectively.