Heightened Alert: Food Poisoning in Cancer Patients

Cancer survivor and food poisoning
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Food Safety for Cancer Patients

Because of weakened immune systems, foodborne illnesses are a greater threat to cancer patients. Normal bouts of food poisoning can be severe for cancer patients. Cancer treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, and certain medications weaken the immune system (FDA), so ingesting foods contaminated with foodborne pathogens like Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli can cause serious infections.

Because of a condition known as neutropenia, cancer patients have difficulty fighting infections from foodborne pathogens (Food Safety). Safe food preparation is critical to preventing a severe infection from a foodborne pathogen.

Cancer patients should ask their physician who to contact in the case of a foodborne illness. Patients should also ask their healthcare providers how to prevent dehydration in the case of food poisoning. Also, it may be beneficial to know the recommended treatments for foodborne illnesses, for treatments vary depending on the cause of the infection (salmonellosis, camplybacteriosis, ect.).

Symptoms of foodborne illnesses include: fever, nausea, vomiting, dehydration, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea. Because cancer patients have weakened immune systems, they’re at higher risk of having more severe complications than those with uncompromised immune systems. Complications include severe dehydration or hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) which damages the kidneys and can lead to kidney failure.

Cancer patients can reduce their risk of contracting a foodborne illness by “being especially vigilant when handling, preparing, and consuming foods” (FDA).

Tips for prevention:

  • Avoid high risk foods like unpasteurized milk/dairy products, unwashed produce, sprouts, raw eggs, and undercooked meats
  • Sanitize all food preparation surfaces like cutting boards, dishes, and counter tops. Especially, use hot soapy water before and after handling raw meat and poultry.
  • Cook foods to safe minimum temperatures. Make sure ground beef reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, beef, pork, and lamb reach 145 degrees Fahrenheit, and all poultry reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit (Food Safety). Here is the link to safe minimum cooking temperatures: https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/mintemp.html


Go to the FoodSafety.gov for more food safety tips and guidelines



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