Botulism is a rare, but serious muscle-paralyzing illness caused by botulinum toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. There are three main types of botulism: foodborne, intestinal and wound.
Foodborne Botulism is caused by eating foods that are contaminated with botulinum toxin. A common cause of this type of illness is improperly processed home-canned foods with low-acid content, such as green beans and corn, and lightly preserved foods such as salted or smoked fish.
The best way to prevent foodborne botulism is by carefully following instructions for safe home canning in the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning.
It is also important not to eat food from damaged cans (food cans with slits, holes, dents or bulges).
Intestinal Botulism is caused by consuming foods contaminated with spores of the Clostridium botulinum bacterium. The spores grow inside the intestines and release toxins, usually in children younger than 12 months of age. Honey can contain the spores that cause intestinal botulism, which is why children younger than 12 months should not be fed honey.
Wound Botulism is caused when Clostridium botulinum bacteria infect a wound and produce toxin that is absorbed into the bloodstream. There is an increased risk of wound botulism in injection drug users.
Wounds should be immediately washed with soap and water. Wound botulism can be prevented by promptly seeking medical care for infected wounds and by not sharing hypodermic needles.
Botulism affects the nervous system. The classic symptoms include:
- Drooping eyelids, seeing double or blurry vision
- Dry mouth, slurred speech or trouble talking
- Trouble breathing
- Muscle weakness or paralysis
Infants with botulism appear sluggish or inactive, feed poorly, are constipated, and have a weak cry and poor muscle tone. Consult a health care provider or go to the emergency room if you or someone you know has symptoms that suggest botulism.
All forms of botulism can be fatal and are considered medical emergencies.
For more information about botulism, visit the CDC website.