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What is Botulism?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Botulism is a type of paralytic illness which is often caused through consumption of contaminated food. The illness can be fatal if left untreated, and at very least it can cause serious symptoms which require weeks or months of recovery. Fortunately, botulism is relatively rare; in the United States, for example, around 100 cases of the illness are reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention every year.

Humans have been struggling with botulism for centuries, as writings from Ancient Greece and Rome suggest. In the 1700s, German physicians finally linked the problem with bad food, and by 1824, the illness had been named “botulism” after the Latin word botulus for “sausage.” Badly cured sausages were among the leading causes of botulism, as the name for the disease reflects. By 1895, scientists had isolated the bacteria which are responsible for botulism, a vital step in preventing and controlling the disease.

The illness is caused by the botulinum toxin, which is secreted by bacteria in the Clostridium genus. The toxin interferes with the central nervous system, causing distorted vision, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, difficulty breathing, muscle weakness, and ultimate paralysis. The illness can only be treated with an antitoxin, which will prevent the botulinum from binding to the cells of the patient. Problems such as systemic infection related to botulism may be treated with antibiotics, while in patients with breathing difficulties, a ventilator may be used until the patient recovers.

The ideal place for the toxin to proliferate is a low acid, anaerobic environment like that found in canned foods. If the environment becomes hostile to the bacteria, they can go dormant until favorable conditions are present again. The most common type of botulism is infant botulism, an infection in young children who are especially susceptible to botulinum spores in the air and soil. Adults can also get botulism from contaminated food, especially home-canned goods, and a very small number of cases are caused by bacterial colonization of flesh wounds.

This form of food poisoning is not entirely preventable, but there are a few steps which can reduce the risk of botulism. Foods should always be handled and preserved in accordance with food safety guidelines, and people should discard food which appears to be suspect. In the case of canned foods and preserves, if the container is dented or bulging, the food should be thrown away. Rare cases of botulism have been caused by things like herbed olive oils, preserved fish, and poorly handled baked potatoes, so consumers should handle these foods with care. Infants should not be given honey, as it has been known to contain botulinum spores.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By AngelChaser — On Feb 15, 2011

I know someone whose 9-month old had botulism poisoning. The baby had breathing problems and wasn’t feeding as much as she used to, so my friend took her to the hospital and lab tests showed that the baby had botulism poisoning. My friend had given her honey, and it turned out that was the cause of the botulism. The doctor also told her to avoid giving corn syrup to the baby, because that can also cause botulism in infants. It took a while for the baby to recover, but she’s fine now. That’s definitely something for me to keep in mind if I ever have children though!

By moonTiger — On Feb 12, 2011

Speaking of canned foods, herbed oils and baked potatoes, the best way to avoid botulism when canning your own food is to pressure cook the foods you plan to can at 250 degrees for at least 30 minutes. Also, consider boiling home-canned foods for 10 minutes before serving them. If you wrap potatoes in foil when baking them, eat them hot or store them in the refrigerator. Also store oils infused with garlic or herbs in the refrigerator.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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