Botulism Symptoms and Signs

Botulism is a rare, possibly fatal illness linked to improperly canned or preserved foods. Symptoms include cramps, vomiting, breathing problems, difficulty swallowing, double vision, and weakness or paralysis. If you suspect botulism poisoning, call 911.

Botulism facts

  • The botulism neurotoxin is one of the most potent, lethal substances known.
  • Botulism is a disease caused by this neurotoxin (specifically A, B, E, or F type neurotoxin); symptoms include a flaccid paralysis (weakness or slackness) in various muscles.
  • The neurotoxin is produced by bacteria called Clostridium botulinum.
  • The neurotoxin paralyzes muscles and can be deadly.
  • There are three major types of human botulism that differ in how they are acquired: foodborne, wound, and infant botulism.
  • Foodborne botulism is usually caused by eating contaminated home canned foods.
  • Never taste-test food that may have gone bad.
  • Wound botulism is due to Clostridium bacteria infecting a wound and releasing the neurotoxin.
  • In infant botulism, the baby consumes spores of the bacteria which then grow in the baby’s intestine and release the neurotoxin.
  • Honey can contain botulism spores and should not be fed to babies less than 1 year of age.
  • Early foodborne, pediatric, and wound botulism can be treated with effective antitoxin types to block the action of the neurotoxin.
  • Botulism neurotoxin is listed as a potential biological weapon.
  • Botulism neurotoxin is used in dilute concentration to treat medical and cosmetic conditions.

What is botulism?

Botulism is a serious illness that causes flaccid paralysis of muscles. It is caused by a neurotoxin, generically called botulinum toxin, produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum (and rarely by C. butyricum and C. baratii). There are seven distinct neurotoxins (types A-G) that Clostridium botulinum produces, but types A, B, and E (and rarely F) are the most common that produce the flaccid paralysis in humans. The other types mainly cause disease in animals and birds, which also develop flaccid paralysis. Most Clostridium species produce only one type of neurotoxin; however, the effects of A, B, E, or F on humans are essentially the same. Botulism is not transmitted from person to person. Botulism develops if a person ingests the toxin (or rarely, if it is inhaled or injected) or if the Clostridium spp. organisms grow in the intestines or wounds in the body and toxin is released.

The recorded history of botulism begins in 1735, when the disease was first associated with German sausage (foodborne disease or food poisoning after eating sausage). In 1870, a German physician by the name of Muller derived the name botulism from the Latin word for sausage. Clostridium botulinum bacteria were first isolated in 1895, and a neurotoxin that it produces was isolated in 1944 by Dr. Edward Schantz. From 1949 to the 1950s, the toxin (named BoNT A) was shown to block neuromuscular transmissions by blocking the release of acetylcholine from motor nerve endings. Botulism toxin(s) are some of the most toxic substances known to man; while the toxin has been considered for use as a biological weapon, it has also been used to treat many medical conditions. In 1980, Dr. Alan B. Scott used the toxin to treat strabismus (deviation of the eye), and in December 1989, BoNT-A (Botox) was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of strabismus, blepharospasm, and hemifacial spasm in young patients. The use of Botox to treat glabellar lines (wrinkles and frown lines) was approved in 2002 by the FDA for cosmetic improvements; the FDA has approved many additional uses (for example, underarm sweating, and muscle pain disorders) since 2002.

In 2017, at least 10 patients were hospitalized with botulism. All of the patients who got botulism ate a nacho cheese sauce served at a gas station near Sacramento, Calif. One patient had to spend at least three weeks in the intensive care unit with paralysis. There is one suspected death due to this botulism outbreak.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/24/2017

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