Steps to Take if You Suspect Food Poisoning – Guide for Seniors

People with food poisoning symptoms have the potential to experience a wide variety of symptoms, ranging from mild to potentially life-threatening conditions. Seniors are at increased risk for serious complications related to food poisoning and may need immediate medical care. Having a specific plan may decrease complications and might protect others at risk.

An action plan for a senior who has food poisoning includes:

  • Immediately contact a healthcare provider.
  • Save the suspected food and packaging.
  • Report the suspected food poisoning.

Healthcare Provider Should Direct Care for Senior With Food Poisoning

Food poisoning may be lethal in older adults, and immediately notifying a healthcare provider is an important first step in an action plan for food poisoning. People who are experiencing life-threatening symptoms should call 911.

Sometimes food poisoning can be safely and effectively treated at home, but a healthcare provider should direct care decisions. A primary care physician may be aware of chronic conditions, medications, and other factors that may help determine the safest course of treatment.

Seniors may also need to contact a specialist. For example, older adults who have chronic gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, such as colon cancer, Crohn’s, GERD, diverticulosis, gluten sensitivity, or ulcerative colitis, may wish to contact their GI specialist for further instructions. Those with allergies, autoimmune diseases, other types of cancer, renal disease, etc. may need to seek medical advice from their specialist as well. Ensure that information between the various healthcare providers is adequately communicated to avoid potential problems.

When contacting the healthcare provider, it is helpful to be prepared to answer questions such as:

  • How old is he/she?
  • What symptoms is the senior experiencing (include ones that might not seem related, such as confusion, seizures, shortness of breath, or chest pain)?
  • When did the symptoms begin?
  • What was the offending product and when was it eaten or drunk?
  • Is the person able to eat or drink and, if so, what and when?
  • What is his/her temperature and how was it checked?
  • What other health conditions does the person have? (diabetes, cancer, dementia, etc.)
  • What medications is the person currently taking or unable to take?
  • What treatment, if any, has been tried?
  • Are others who ate the offending item also experiencing similar symptoms?

It helps to be observant and to keep specific records, such as:

  • Number of times the person has vomited, including the last time
  • Observation of the emesis (vomit), such as color, amount, presence of blood, etc.
  • Number of times the person has had diarrhea, including the last time
  • Condition of the stools (bowel movements), such as color, consistence, presence of blood and/or mucus, etc.
  • Number of times the person has urinated, including the last time
  • Observation of the urine, such as color, amount, painful urination, etc.
  • Blood glucose (blood sugar) level if the person has diabetes
  • The person's normal and current weight
  • Check orthostatic vital signs (temperature, pulse, respirations, blood pressure), if trained

Carefully follow directions, such as obtaining any samples, guidelines for fluid replacement, and call back instructions.

Keep Leftover Contaminated Food and Packaging Associated With Food Poisoning

Having a sample of the offending food may assist in determining the most effective treatment and may help to determine others who may be affected. If the suspected product was not completely eaten, save it by:

  • Placing it in a ziplock bag or completely wrapping it in plastic or some other secure means
  • Placing a large label on it with the word “DANGER” clearly marked on it
  • Freezing the contained food

Save any packaging from the offending food or drink if possible. If identical items are present, save those as well. If in doubt, do not eat any suspected foods or drinks.

How to Report Food Poisoning

People may call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854 (1-800-256-7072 for TTY, hearing impaired) to report contaminated meat, poultry, or egg products.

If the contaminated product is not a meat, including cereal, fish, fruit, vegetable, pasta, cheese, juice, etc., people may contact the closest Food and Drug Administration (FDA) office. The Food Safety and Applied Nutrition of the FDA may be contacted at 1-888-723-3366.

People who have become ill from eating food in a restaurant or other establishment that serves food should notify the local health department. The Health Guide USA website can assist with locating contact information for health departments. Health department staff can provide other information and can provide other investigative efforts if warranted. Sometimes a healthcare provider may be required to notify the health department regarding an investigation of food poisoning, and health department staff may notify the people involved with further instructions, information, and investigative questions.

The store and/or product manufacturer of the contaminated product may also be contacted directly. Sometimes the food or drink is not known – seek the advice of a healthcare provider to determine the best course of action.

If reporting a contaminated food or drink, be prepared to provide the following information:

  • Your contact information
  • Name of product, manufacturer, and brand
  • Package type and size
  • Package code (not UPC code) and dates
  • Establishment number (usually near the phrase “USDA passed and inspected”)
  • Name and location of the store in which the product was bought
  • Date the product was bought

What to Do if a High Risk Person Has Food Poisoning

Older adults are high risk for complications related to food poisoning and should immediately notify a healthcare provider if they are experiencing symptoms and carefully answer all questions and follow specific directions for care. Carefully saving and storing the offending product and packaging can greatly assist in determining the origin of the contamination, help with identifying others who may have also eaten the contaminated product, and be useful in developing a specific care plan.