Botulism is a rare, but life-threatening illness that needs urgent care.
Toxins made by certain bacterial spores cause botulism. The spores are found:
- In the soil
- At the bottom of lakes, rivers, and streams
- In fish, mammals, and shellfish
Spores live in poorly cooked foods. A very small amount of the toxin can cause illness. You can get sick by eating foods that carry the bacteria or toxin. This occurs with:
- Home-canned goods
- Meat products
- Canned vegetables
If a baby swallows the spores, they will grow and make the toxin. Unlike adults and older children, babies become sick from toxins growing in their bowels. Honey is a prime source of infant botulism. Other sources are soil and dust.
Wound infection in the US is rare, but it can happen. The toxin travels to other parts of the body through the bloodstream.
In some cases, the cause is unknown.
is also a potential bioterrorism agent.
Botulism risk is higher:
- If you eat poorly preserved, cooked, or canned foods
For babies who eat honey
- If you have a dirty or infected wound (rare)
- Use IV drugs (rare)
Symptoms start in the face and eyes, then move down both sides of the body. Without care, muscles in the arms, legs, and torso will not move. This involves muscles that help you breathe. Botulism can be deadly.
Symptoms range from mild to serious.
- Vision problems
- Droopy eyelids
- The feeling of spinning while standing still—vertigo
- Sore throat
- Swallowing problems
- Dry mouth
- Breathing problems
- Not eating or sucking
- Little energy
- Floppy muscles
- Weak cry
The time people notice muscle- or nerve-related problems depends on how the toxin got into the body:
- Food—12-36 hours, but can be up to 10 days
- Inhalation—within 6 hours
- Wound—often within 2 weeks
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. It’s vital to know how you got sick or what you were eating.
You may also have:
- A physical exam
- Blood tests
- Stool tests
- Tests on any stomach contents
- Tests on your muscles and nerves
- A swab of the wound
Public health officials will work quickly to find the source of botulism to set up testing and care.
Care will start right away, even if your test results aren’t ready. This may involve:
- An antitoxin—it will stop the spread of paralysis, but cannot reverse it
- Supportive care in an intensive care unit
- Breathing support with a ventilator
- Surgery to clean out your wound
- Antibiotics if the wound is infected
Intubation to Help Breathing
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To lower your chances of botulism, learn how to properly can and cook food. Also:
- Don’t feed honey to children under 1 year old.
- Refrigerate oils that have garlic or herbs.
- Don’t eat food from a can that is bulging.
Practice good hygiene when canning.
Seek care for wounds, especially if they become infected.
- Avoid using IV drugs.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/botulism.
Updated October 25, 2017. Accessed May 23, 2018.
Botulism. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116075/Botulism. Updated August 4, 2015. Accessed May 23, 2018.
Botulism. Food Safety—US Department of Health & Human Service website. Available at: https://www.foodsafety.gov/poisoning/causes/bacteriaviruses/botulism/index.html. Accessed May 23, 2018.
Botulism. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at:
http://kidshealth.org/kid/watch/house/botulism.html. Updated September 2015. Accessed May 23, 2018.
Botulism. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/infectious-diseases/anaerobic-bacteria/botulism. Updated January 2018. Accessed May 23, 2018.
Last reviewed May 2018 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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