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People at Risk: Those with Weakened Immune Systems

A properly functioning immune system works to clear infection and other foreign agents from the body. If you have health problems or take medicines that weaken your body’s ability to fight germs and sickness, you are more likely to get a foodborne illness. This includes, for example, if you have:

  • diabetes
  • liver or kidney disease
  • HIV or AIDS
  • autoimmune diseases
  • organ transplants
  • a need for chemotherapy or radiation therapy

If you have weakened immune systems, you are more likely to be sick for a longer time, to be hospitalized, or even die, should you get a foodborne illness. To avoid this, you must be especially careful when choosing, handling, preparing, and consuming food.

Download the FDA’s guide to Food Safety for Older Adults and People with Cancer, Diabetes, HIV/AIDS, Organ Transplants, and Autoimmune Diseases.

Download the USDA’s Food Safety: A Need-to-Know Guide for Those At-Risk.

Choose Safer Food

Learn about safer food choices if you have a weakened immune system and might have a higher risk for foodborne illnesses, such as Listeria or Salmonella infections.

If you have health problems or take medicines that weaken your immune systems, or prepare food for someone who does, you should always follow the four steps below to reduce foodborne illness:

  • Clean: Wash hands, utensils and surfaces often. Germs can spread and survive in many places.
  • Separate: Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs can spread illness-causing bacteria to ready-to-eat foods, so keep them separate.
  • Cook: Food is safely cooked only when the internal temperature is high enough to kill germs that can make you sick.
  • Chill: Refrigerate promptly. Bacteria that cause food poisoning multiply quickest between 40°F and 140°F.

People with Cancer

If you have cancer, you are more likely to get a foodborne illness because of your weakened immune systems. Cancer and its treatments put you at higher risk for many types of infections.

People with Diabetes

Diabetes affects various organs and systems of the body, causing them not to function properly, and making infection more likely. The immune system may not immediately recognize harmful germs, which increases the risk of infection.

  • Glucose Levels: High glucose levels suppress the function of white blood cells that fight off infection, increasing the risk of contracting a foodborne illness. A foodborne illness may affect blood glucose levels because the illness impacts what and how much can be eaten.
  • Gastrointestinal Tract (GI): Diabetes may cause the stomach to produce low amounts of digestive acid. In addition, nerves may not move food through the GI tract as quickly. When the stomach holds on to food longer than necessary, bacteria start to multiply. If the amount of unhealthy bacteria in the stomach gets too high, it can lead to foodborne illness.
  • Kidneys: Kidneys usually work to cleanse the body. If diabetes affects how the kidneys function, they may hold on to harmful germs.

People with HIV or AIDS

HIV and AIDS damage or destroy the immune system, making people more likely to contract many types of infections, including those that cause foodborne illness.

Transplant Recipients

Organ rejection by the immune system is a serious problem for transplant recipients. Transplant recipients take drugs to suppress the immune system to keep it from attacking, or rejecting, the transplanted organ or bone marrow. These medicines are necessary, but a side effect is that they make infections more likely, such as those caused by foodborne germs.

People with Autoimmune Diseases

If you have an autoimmune disease, you are more likely to get a foodborne illness because your immune systems can’t fight infection effectively. Common types of autoimmune diseases include multiple sclerosis (MS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and lupus (SLE).

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