Food poisoning among seniors in the United States and elsewhere is a serious problem. The young and the elderly are commonly the victims of many food outbreaks. There are many reasons for this but the good news is that food poisoning can be prevented by following simple guidelines.
Millions Fall Ill from Food Poisoning
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about 76 million Americans fall ill every year due to food poisoning. Around 300,000 get sick enough to require hospitalization, and some 5,000 people eventually die from complications. Most victims of food poisoning are infants, young children, the elderly, and sick people who have weak immune systems.
Germs that Cause Food Poisoning
There are several germs that cause food borne diseases. Some of the most infamous illness-causing bacteria are Escherichia coli (or simply E. coli), Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus, Salmonella, and Clostridium perfringens. E. coli can contaminate fruits, vegetables and raw meat as well as unpasteurized milk. Listeria can thrive in cold cuts, hotdogs, cheese, salads, and eggs.
Symptoms of Food Poisoning
Food poisoning symptoms can range from mild to severe to life-threatening. Common symptoms include cramping, abdominal pain, headache, nausea, vomiting, bloating, flatulence, diarrhea, fever, muscle aches, and flu-like symptoms. Some develop infections and other complications that are lethal.
Why Seniors are Vulnerable to Food Poisoning
Several factors make older people more susceptible to food poisoning. They have weak immune systems, diminishing senses, chronic diseases, and a general lack of support in daily living.
Weak immune system
People older than 50 have slower digestive processes than younger They also produce less stomach acid and the stomach lining becomes prone to inflammation. This results to a decreased ability to fight germs that come inside the body when they consume food or water. Changes in the gut are part of a more general decline in immune system function in older people. As we grow older, seniors’ ability to fend off deadly germs decline and we tend to get sick quicker and more often.
Decline in five senses
Elderly people experience a decline in the sharpness of smell, vision, and taste. They have less enjoyment in eating because they find the same food less palatable and enticing to eat. Moreover, they are less able to notice if the food they are about to eat is already spoiled because their sense of smell, taste or eyesight is not what they are used to be.
Seniors usually have chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, kidney disease which further lowers their resistance against germs. Those with dementia may have memory problems so severe that they are not able to prepare food safely and are at great risk of falling victim to food poisoning.
Lack of support
Many old people live alone or are only visited by family and friends sporadically. The lack of direction and supervision makes it more likely to practice unhygienic ways in the kitchen and improper food preparation. Lack of support is an additional factor why seniors succumb to food poisoning.
Steps to Take to Prevent Food Poisoning
Health experts, government organizations and even plain common sense can give us some tips on how to help our senior loved ones avoid food poisoning. There are several ways to avoid food poisoning in home care. Here are some:
Clean the kitchen
It is good practice to always clean kitchen surfaces, utensils, chopping boards and appliances. Use hot soapy water or mild bleach solution to disinfect the kitchen. Make sure you change wash cloths and hand towels every day. Soak cloths in bleach solution to avoid bacteria from multiplying. Dispose garbage as soon as possible and keep the kitchen free of flies and pests.
Wash hands and food properly
Hand washing cannot be overemphasized because it is the simplest way to fight germs. Wash your hands before and after eating or handling food (especially raw meat, sea food, eggs), after using the toilet, and after getting rid of the garbage. Cover your mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing and wash hands immediately. Patient care attendants can use gloves for added protection or in case they have a wound. Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before cooking. Many outbreaks are caused by contaminated, unwashed vegetables.
Separate food items
Separate raw meat, eggs, poultry and sea food items from ready-to-cook food items. Use one cutting board for fruits and vegetables and another for raw meat and sea food. Avoid placing cooked food into a plate or board that has been used to place raw meat to prevent contamination by leftover juices and bacteria.
Thaw food adequately
Thaw food in the refrigerator (not at room temperature) or soak under cold water. Make sure the drip from the food being thawed does not contaminate other foods by using a container to catch juices that harbor bacteria. If in a hurry, thaw it using a microwave oven but cook it immediately.
Cook food thoroughly
Make sure all food is cooked thoroughly by looking at the color of meat (no pink or slight pink only). Use a meat thermometer to ensure that the inside is cooked adequately. Boil sauces and marinades and cook fish until it is dry and flaky.
Store foods properly
Keep raw meat frozen and leftovers refrigerated. Throw away any leftover food that has been sitting in the refrigerator for three days. Check the expiration dates of canned goods in your cupboard. Notice any foul-smelling odor, molds or insects that indicate contamination. Pesticides and other chemicals should be kept away from the kitchen.
Avoid risky foods
The NIH advises seniors to avoid raw or undercooked: meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, hot dogs, cold cuts, sprouts, as well as unpasteurized milk and juices. Remember when it comes to your diet, if the food smells “off”, does not look safe or if you are simply in doubt, throw it out!
in home caregivers cAN Help Prevent Food Poisoning in Seniors
The elderly are vulnerable to food poisoning due to their weak immune system, chronic diseases, and lack of support. In home care workers can help them buy, prepare, eat, and store food safely to avoid food poisoning. In home caregivers can also help with preparing food safely and with cleaning up afterwards. The tips above can be done by seniors, their families and their caregivers to provide good and safe nutrition every day.