Botulism

Overview

Botulism is a rare but serious paralytic disease caused by toxins from the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Botulism bacteria can be found in soil, honey, and home-prepared, canned foods. People can get botulism from eating foods that contain the botulism toxin or getting the bacteria in a cut. Botulism is most commonly found in babies, possibly because their digestive systems cannot yet protect them from germs that they ingest. Botulism can be fatal if it is not treated.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

There are three primary types of botulism: wound botulism, food borne botulism, and infant botulism. Wound botulism is most common in people who inject drugs,usually heroin. Food borne botulism occurs when people eat foods contaminated with the bacteria, which thrive and produce toxins in environments with little oxygen, such as canned food. Infant botulism is the most common type of botulism and occurs when bacterial spores grow in a baby’s digestive tract. Most cases happen between 2 and 6 months of age.

The most common symptoms of botulism include difficulty swallowing or speaking, weakness on both sides of the face, blurred or double vision, drooping eyelids, and trouble breathing. In infants, signs of botulism typically appear within 18 to 36 hours after the toxin is ingested. The first symptom is usually constipation, followed by floppy movements, weak cry, irritability, drooling, drooping eyelids, and difficulty sucking or feeding. All forms of botulism ultimately lead to paralysis caused by breathing restrictions.

Diagnosing botulism involves checking for signs of muscle weakness or paralysis. Doctors usually take a medical history and ask about recent food intake, wounds, or drug use. Blood, stool, or vomit may be tested for the toxin to confirm a diagnosis.

Causes

When botulism bacteria or their spores get into the body, they produce toxins (poisons) that disrupt nerve function and cause paralysis. The most common sources of botulism in infants are soil and honey contaminated with the bacteria. Food borne botulism is usually caused by self-prepared canned goods low in acid, such as green beans, corn, and beets. Canned foods provide an ideal environment in which botulism toxins can grow. In Alaska, seafood is a common source of illness. Wound botulism is not as common, but often results from injecting drugs such as heroin, which can be contaminated with bacterial spores. Continue reading for Prevention and Treatment Information . . .

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