Endotoxins are compounds found in the cell walls of Gram negative bacteria. These compounds help to form a semi-permeable membrane which is designed to protect bacteria from threats. Once the bacteria die, the endotoxins are released, and many of these toxins cause health problems in people, animals, and other organisms, hence the “toxin” in their name.
These toxins are separate from the exotoxins which are routinely secreted by some bacteria over the course of their lives. Bacteria which make exotoxins can make hosts sick while they are still alive with their toxins, while the toxins in endotoxic bacteria only become a problem after the organism dies. Classically, endotoxins cause inflammatory processes, which can lead to fever, vomiting, diarrhea, changes in white blood cell counts, and high blood pressure.
When bacteria with endotoxins start to multiply in a host, the host usually responds by sending representatives of the immune system to kill or neutralize the bacteria. Ironically, killing the bacteria is what actually makes them dangerous, although even without an immune response, the endotoxins would be released as the bacteria live out their lives. Often, the body has difficulty tackling the toxins, because they are unfamiliar.
Many endoxotins come in the form of lipopolysaccharides, although other chemical compounds may appear as well. These toxins can become a serious problem in the wake of a bacterial infection, or when bacteria contaminate medications, food, and lab samples, because the toxins tend to resist heat and many other sterilization methods. As a result, when someone consumes a product contaminated with bacteria which contain endotoxins, they can become sick.
Presence of endotoxins in the body can usually be identified through blood tests which check for traces of infection, and it is also possible to search for specific toxins. Usually, the toxins must be allowed to run their course through the body, with the patient being given supportive therapy to boost the immune system and keep the body as healthy as possible. In situations where endotoxins have contaminated food, medication, and other products, it may necessary to discard the product, although some toxins are susceptible to heating, radiation, and other measures which can be used to break the toxins down so that they will not be dangerous.
In situations where people want to work with bacteria which contain endotoxins in the lab, an endotoxin removal technique can be used to bind to the toxins and remove them from the culture. This can be especially important in the manufacturing of biopharmaceuticals, drugs which are produced from living organisms such as bacteria.