Botulism

Definition

Botulism is a potentially deadly illness that is caused by a toxin produced by specific bacteria.

Causes

The bacteria 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 the bacteria and its spores. Bacterial spores can survive in improperly prepared foods. A very small amount of the botulism toxin can cause illness. People are exposed to this toxin in one of three ways:
  • Food can be contaminated with the toxin and/or bacteria. Food that may be contaminated with the toxin include:
    • Home-canned goods
    • Sausage
    • Meat products
    • Seafood
    • Canned vegetables
    • Honey
  • If an infant swallows the 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, but this is rare in the United States. The toxin then travels to other parts of the body through the bloodstream.
In some cases, the source of the bacteria is unknown. Botulism toxin is also a potential bioterrorism agent.

Risk Factors

Factors that increase your chance of botulism include:
  • Eating improperly preserved, cooked, or canned foods
  • For infants, consuming honey
  • Rarely, a dirty wound or IV drugs use

Symptoms

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 unable to move. Death can occur.Symptoms can range from mild to severe and include:In adults:
  • Constipation
  • Double or blurred vision
  • Droopy eyelids
  • Generalized weakness, fatigue, vertigo/dizziness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Sore throat
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Dry mouth
  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty breathing
In babies:
  • Constipation
  • Not eating or sucking
  • Little energy
  • Poor muscle tone
  • Weak 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. When a wound is the cause of botulism, symptoms start within 4-14 days.

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