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Food-borne botulism is
a rare but serious type of
food poisoning that can result in
paralysis. It is caused by the Clostridium botulinum (C. botulinum)
bacterium. The bacteria produce a nerve toxin that can cause paralysis.
Food-borne botulism can be fatal and is considered a medical emergency.
botulism can be caused by eating contaminated home-canned foods that have a low
acid content, such as asparagus, green beans, beets, and corn. But there
have been cases of botulism from more unusual sources, such as chopped garlic
in oil, chile peppers, tomatoes, improperly handled baked potatoes wrapped in
aluminum foil, and home-canned or fermented fish.
botulism can result if a baby eats raw (unpasteurized) honey or corn syrup contaminated by
C. botulinum spores. The spores multiply in the infant's
intestine and produce toxins.
The symptoms of food-borne
botulism may include double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred
speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness. Infants with
botulism appear to have little energy (lethargic), eat poorly, are constipated,
and have a weak cry and poor muscle tone. These are all symptoms of the muscle
paralysis caused by the nerve toxin. If botulism is
not treated, advanced symptoms may cause paralysis of the arms, legs, and trunk
and the muscles that help you breathe. In food-borne botulism, symptoms
generally begin 18 to 36 hours after eating a contaminated food. But they can
occur as early as 4 hours or as late as 10 days after eating the food.
Your doctor will do a medical history and physical exam and ask you questions
about your symptoms and foods you have recently eaten. The best way to be sure
of the diagnosis is for a doctor to inject your blood serum or
stool into mice and look for signs of botulism. Other tests that may be done
include a brain scan and a spinal fluid exam.
If diagnosed early, food-borne
botulism can be treated with an
antitoxin that blocks the action of the botulism
toxins. This can prevent the condition from getting worse, but recovery still
takes many weeks. Your doctor may try to remove contaminated food
in the digestive tract by inducing vomiting or by using
The paralysis that occurs with
severe botulism may cause you to need a breathing machine (ventilator) for weeks, along with intensive medical
and nursing care. After several weeks, the paralysis slowly improves.
Infants are usually not given antitoxin. But
infants younger than 1 year old can be given a botulism immunoglobulin
(BabyBIG) to treat botulism.
Food-borne botulism often comes
from home-canned foods. You can prevent botulism by following strict procedures
when canning and by boiling home-canned food for 10 minutes before eating it.
You can get instructions on safe home canning from county extension services or
from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In rare cases, people get botulism from
commercially canned and processed foods.
Botulism from more
unusual sources, such as chopped garlic in oil, chile peppers, tomatoes,
improperly handled baked potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil, and home-canned or
fermented fish, have occurred. To prevent this, refrigerate oils with garlic or
herbs and serve baked potatoes while they are still hot.
give raw (unpasteurized) honey or corn syrup to children younger than 12 months. It can
contain spores of C. botulinum.
October 18, 2012
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & W. David Colby IV, MSc, MD, FRCPC - Infectious Disease
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