What Is Botulism?
Botulism (or botulism poisoning) is a rare but very serious
illness that transmits through food, contact with contaminated soil, or through
an open wound. Without early treatment, botulism can lead to paralysis,
breathing difficulties, and death.
There are three main types of botulism:
- infant botulism
- foodborne botulism
- wound botulism
Botulism poisoning is due to a toxin produced by a type of
bacteria called Clostridium botulinum. Although very common, these
bacteria can only thrive in conditions where there’s no oxygen. Certain food
sources, such as home-canned foods, provide a potent breeding ground.
According to the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 145 cases of botulism are
reported every year in the United States. About 3 to 5 percent of those with
botulism poisoning die.
What Are the Symptoms of Botulism?
Symptoms of botulism can appear from six hours to 10 days after
the initial infection. On average, symptoms of infant and foodborne
botulism appear between 12 and 36 hours after eating contaminated food.
Early signs of infant botulism include:
- difficulty feeding
- drooping eyelids
- weak cry
- loss of head control and floppy movements due to
Signs of foodborne or wound botulism include:
- difficulty swallowing or speaking
- facial weakness on both sides of the face
- blurred vision
- drooping eyelids
- trouble breathing
- nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps (only in
What Are the Causes of Botulism? Who Is at Risk?
reports that 65 percent of botulism cases occur in infants or children younger
than 1 year of age. Infant botulism is typically the result of exposure to
contaminated soil, or by eating foods that contain botulism spores. Honey
and corn syrup are two examples of foods that can have contamination. These
spores can grow inside the intestinal tract of infants, releasing the botulism
toxin. Older children and adults have natural defenses that prevent the
bacteria from growing.
According to the CDC,
around 15 percent of botulism cases are foodborne. These can be home-canned
foods or commercially canned products that didn’t undergo proper processing.
The World Health
Organization (WHO) reports that botulism toxin has been found in:
- preserved vegetables with low acid content, such
as beets, spinach, mushrooms, and green beans
- canned tuna fish
- fermented, smoked, and salted fish
- meat products, such as ham and sausage
Wound botulism makes up 20 percent of all botulism cases, and is due
to botulism spores entering an open wound, according to the CDC.
The rate of occurrence for this type of botulism has risen in recent years due
to drug use, as the spores are commonly present in heroin and cocaine.
Botulism isn’t passed from person to person. A person must
consume the spores or toxin through food, or the toxin must enter a wound, to
cause the symptoms of botulism poisoning.
How Is Botulism Diagnosed?
If you suspect that you or someone you know has botulism, get
medical help immediately. Early diagnosis and treatment is crucial for
To diagnose botulism, a doctor will complete a physical exam,
noting any signs or symptoms of botulism poisoning. They’ll ask about foods eaten
within the past several days as possible sources of the toxin, and if anyone
else ate the same food. They’ll also ask about any wounds.
In infants, a doctor will also check for physical symptoms, and
will ask about any foods that the infant ate, such as honey or corn
Your doctor may also take blood or stool samples to analyze for
the presence of toxins. However, results for these tests may take days, so most
doctors rely on a clinical observation of symptoms to make a diagnosis.
Some symptoms of botulism can mimic those of other diseases and
conditions. Your doctor may order additional tests to rule out other causes.
These tests may include:
- electromyography (EMG) to evaluate muscle
- imaging scans to detect any internal damage to
the head or brain
- spinal fluid test to determine if infection or
injury to the brain or spinal cord is causing symptoms
How Is Botulism Treated?
For foodborne and wound botulism, a doctor administers an
antitoxin as soon as possible after diagnosis. In infants, a treatment known as
botulism immune globulin blocks the actions of neurotoxins circulating in the
Severe cases of botulism may require the use of a ventilator to
help support breathing. Recovery may take weeks or months. Long-term therapy
and rehabilitation may also be necessary in severe cases. There’s a vaccine for
botulism, but it’s not common, as its effectiveness hasn’t been fully tested
and there are side effects.
How Can I Prevent Botulism?
In most cases, botulism is easy to prevent. You can reduce your
risk with the following preventative measures:
- Follow proper techniques when canning food at
home, ensuring you reach adequate heat and acidic levels.
- Be cautious of any fermented fish or other
aquatic game foods.
- Throw away any open or bulging cans of
commercially prepared food.
- Refrigerate oils infused with garlic or herbs.
- Potatoes cooked and wrapped in aluminum foil can
create an oxygen-free environment where botulism can thrive. Keep these hot or
- Boiling foods for 10 minutes will destroy
As a rule, you should never feed an infant honey or corn syrup,
since these foods may contain Clostridium