Botulism is a potentially deadly illness that is caused by a toxin produced by a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum . This bacterium are found in the soil and at the bottom of lakes, streams, and oceans. The intestinal tracts of fish, mammals, crabs, and other shellfish may contain C botulinum and its spores. The bacterium's spores can survive in improperly prepared foods.
A very small amount of the botulism toxin can cause illness. People come in contact with this toxin in one of three ways:
- Food can be contaminated with the bacteria and its toxin. It is the toxin produced by C botulinum —not C botulinum itself—that causes botulism in humans. Food that may be contaminated with the toxin include:
- Home-canned goods
- Meat products
- Canned vegetables
- If an infant swallows C botulinum spores, they will grow in the baby's body and produce the toxin. Unlike adults and older children, infants become sick from toxin produced by bacteria growing in their own intestines. Honey is a prime source of infant botulism. Other sources include soil and dust.
- A wound can become infected with the bacteria (rare in the US). The toxin then travels to other parts of the body through the bloodstream.
Factors that increase your chance of getting botulism include:
- Eating improperly canned foods
- For infants, consuming honey
- Using IV drugs (rare)
Symptoms begin in the face and eyes, and progress down both sides of the body. If left untreated, muscles in the arms, legs, and torso, as well as those used in breathing become paralyzed. Death can occur.
Symptoms can range from mild to severe and include:
- Muscle weakness
- Double or blurred vision
- Droopy eyelids
- Trouble swallowing
- Dry mouth
- Sore throat
- Slurred speech
- Difficulty breathing
- Not eating or sucking
- Little energy
- Poor muscle tone
- Feeble cry
When food is the cause of botulism, symptoms usually start within 36 hours of eating the contaminated food. Some people notice symptoms within a few hours. Others may not develop symptoms for several days. Some people experience nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea .
Early therapy with an antitoxin is essential to decrease resulting nerve damage. Treatment should start without waiting for confirming diagnostic test results.
If started early, an antitoxin can stop the paralysis from progressing and may shorten symptoms. It does not reverse the disease process.
The most serious complication is respiratory failure. Treatment aims to maintain adequate oxygen supply. Patients may require a ventilator and close monitoring in an intensive care unit. Feeding through a tube also may be needed. Recovery occurs after the body produces new nerve fibers. This process may take weeks or months.
Public Health Measures
Cases are reported to public health officials. Contaminated clothing and surfaces should be washed with a bleach solution or left untouched for days.
High temperatures can destroy the botulism toxin. Strategies to prevent botulism include:
- Do not feed honey to children less than one year old.
- Refrigerate oils that contain garlic or herbs.
- Bake potatoes without foil. If potatoes are wrapped in foil, keep them hot until served or refrigerate them.
- Do not taste foods that appear spoiled.
- Do not eat food from a can that is bulging.
- Boil home-canned foods for 10-20 minutes before eating.
- Practice good hygiene when canning. Follow government recommendations.
- Seek medical care for wounds. Return to the doctor if a wound looks infected (redness, warmth, pus, tenderness).
- Do not inject illicit drugs.
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