What is Botulism?

Clostridium botulinum is a toxic bacteria that is sometimes found in improperly canned foods or foods that have not been correctly preserved. When you ingest this bacteria, it can cause botulism, a serious illness that can cause paralysis and even death.

Babies and people with compromised immune systems can get sick from botulism spores that healthy people could fight off. Some foods, like honey, are not recommended for infants because of the risk that they may carry botulism spores.

Botulism can also infect open wounds. It’s sometimes found in people who inject heroin, as heroin may contain spores.

In some cases, botulism bacteria can be used for good purposes. The toxin can be injected by a medical professional into the skin, and the paralysis it produces can reduce wrinkles, make overactive sweat glands stop production and eliminate uncontrollable muscle spasms.

What are the Symptoms of Botulism?

People who have ingested Clostridium botulinum usually have symptoms within 12 to 36 hours.

Symptoms include

Symptoms of botulism include dry mouth, facial weakness, difficulty breathing, trouble with swallowing, abdominal cramping and paralysis. Some people may have nausea and vomiting or other signs of muscle weakness.

Infants who have been exposed to botulism may first develop constipation, then show floppy movements, weakness, lethargy and trouble feeding. Babies may be more irritable than usual, cry softly and show signs of paralysis.

Any time botulism symptoms are observed, it’s important to seek medical care immediately. Respiratory failure and death can follow if botulism is untreated.

Botulism Causes

The Clostridium botulinum bacteria produces a neurotoxin that causes botulism. There are three main types of botulism: infant botulism, food-borne botulism, and wound botulism. All types of botulism are potentially fatal and considered medical emergencies.

Most cases occur in infants under 12 months old who ingest foods containing botulism spores, such as honey and corn syrup. They may also contract the disease if exposed to soil contaminated by the spores.

Adults can become infected with botulism when ingesting certain foods as well. Botulism spores or toxins can be found in canned vegetables with low acid content (such as green beans and asparagus), canned and fermented fish, canned cheese sauce, canned tomatoes, carrot juice, chilli peppers, cooked potatoes wrapped in foil, oils containing garlic, and in meats like ham and sausage. Canned foods allow botulism spores to thrive due to the lack of oxygen inside the can.

Botulism spores may contaminate open wounds through soil or fecal matter. Recently, this type of botulism has risen due to the use of drugs like heroin (especially black tar heroin) and cocaine.

Botulism is not contagious, and cannot be spread from person to person.

How is Botulism Treated?

Some other diseases can show similar signs to botulism, so your doctor will do tests to confirm the presence of Clostridium botulinum. An anti-toxin is available that can mitigate the toxin’s effects as it circulates in the body.

Severe cases of botulism will require respiratory assistance with a ventilator and supportive medical care, usually in the hospital. As patients recover, they may have shortness of breath and require physical therapy to regain the use of muscles that were paralyzed.

Botulism Prevention

It is possible to prevent Botulism though.

By following these precautions:

  • Never feed infants corn syrup or honey.
  • Practice proper canning techniques and pay attention to heat and acidity.
  • Discard damaged or expired commercially canned food, and remember that botulism is not always apparent from taste or smell.
  • Boil canned foods whenever possible for at least 10 minutes.
  • Check the FDA website frequently to see their published list of commercial food recalled for containing botulism spores and toxins.
  • Eat foil-wrapped potatoes hot or store them in the refrigerator. NEVER eat them at room temperature.
  • Refrigerate oil infused with garlic.
  • Keep wounds clean and practice proper sanitation.
  • Never use drugs such as heroin or cocaine.
Last Reviewed:
September 13, 2016
Last Updated:
November 20, 2017