What Food-borne Illnesses Are Most Dangerous to Children?

By Sharon Perkins
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Around 50 percent of all food-borne illnesses occur in children under 15, according to the PEW Health Group. Children have a higher risk of developing food-borne illnesses than adults for several reasons. Since they're smaller, it takes fewer bacteria to sicken them. Children also have weaker immune systems, which reduces their ability to fight infections. They also produce less stomach acid, which helps neutralize pathogens. Some food-borne illness cause only transient distress, while others have potentially life-threatening side effects requiring prompt medical attention.


One of the most common causes of diarrheal infections in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), campylobacter can infect children or adults who handle or eat raw or uncooked poultry or other infected foods. Shopping carts can become contaminated with the bacteria from poultry packages. In 2005, 47 percent of raw chicken breasts tested contained the bacteria, the CDC reports. Cows can sometimes transmit the bacteria in raw milk. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea, which may be bloody, and abdominal pain or cramping. Complications include arthritis and the Guillain-Barré syndrome, a type of paralysis that lasts several weeks. Around one in 1,000 people with reported campylobacter infection develop Guillain-Barré syndrome; 40 percent of Guillian-Barré infection may be caused by the bacteria, according to the CDC. Menginitis or death can also occur.

E. Coli 0157:H7

Escherichia coli, better known simply as E. coli, is a ubiquitous bacteria found in nearly everyone's gastroinestinal tract. But some strains, particularly Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, or STEC, can have a virulent effect. E. coli O157:H7, the most common STEC in North America, lives in the intestines of healthy cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and deer. Foods that transmit this bacteria include unpasteurized milk or cider, undercooked meat or soft cheeses. Leafy green vegetables contaminated with droppings in infected water or infected humans with poor handwashing techniques can also transmit E. coli. Symptoms include abdominal pain and diarrhea. Around 15 percent of children develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious disorder that can affect the kidneys and can lead to permanent kidney damage or death, according to the CDC. Symptoms include fatigue, bloody diarrhea, decreased urination and cheek pallor and pallor inside the lower eyelids.


Salmonella bacteria from animals can contaminate raw meat, fruits and vegetables that fall on the ground, eggs, and water, or be transmitted from the hands of other infected people. As with other food-borne illnesses, children under age 4 are especially susceptible to salmonella; about 33 percent of the 50,000 cases in the United States each year occur in this age group, according to KidsHealth. Symptoms include fever, nausea, vomiting, possibly bloody diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain and headache. Salmonella poisoning can lead to meningitis, heart infections, blood infection or death.


Around 70 percent of all cases of shigella infection occur in children under age 5, Israeli Professor of Pediatrics Shai Ashkenazi reports in a Wolters Kluwer Health UpToDate article. Diarrhea in shigellosis is often more severe than in other food-borne illnesses; the first stool may be large and watery; subsequent stools may contain blood. Fever, abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting often occur; in severe cases seizures, stiff neck, confusion, dehydration, arthritis and kidney failure can follow. Shigella transmission can occur from vegetables grown in fields contaminated with infected water or from person to person. People who carry the infection can also contaminate food.

About the Author

A registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology, Sharon Perkins has also coauthored and edited numerous health books for the Wiley "Dummies" series. Perkins also has extensive experience working in home health with medically fragile pediatric patients.