What is botulism? What causes botulism?

The botulinum toxin generated by clostridium botulinum bacteria causes a deadly paralytic condition called botulism. Clostridium botulinum bacteria are found in both soil and water.  Low oxygen levels and certain temperatures favor the production of the botulinum toxins. These toxins are considered to be the most lethal substances known. Botulinum toxins block the normal functioning of the nerves. This results in respiratory muscle paralysis.  In the U.S, the number of cases of botulism reported annually comes around 110;  most of which are cases of infant botulism. This serious infection, if left untreated can lead to death.

Three main types of botulism are food-borne, wound and infant botulism.

Infant botulism develops when clostridium botulinum bacterial spores enter the baby’s intestinal tract. Because spores of clostridium botulinum bacteria survive in honey, it is better to avoid giving it to babies less than a year old.

Wound botulism appears when your wound gets infected by Clostridium botulinum bacteria. It releases the neurotoxin under favorable conditions.

Food-borne botulism: Contaminated undercooked or canned food causes this type of botulism.

All the three botulisms are fatal and need immediate medical attention.  

What are the symptoms of botulism?

Symptoms of botulism usually develop quickly, within a few hours after the toxin gets generated.

The initial symptoms include facial weakness, dry mouth, drooping eyelids, breathing problem, nausea, constipation, tiredness, speech problems and trouble with vision. At a later stage weakness spreads to arms, chest muscles and legs.

How is botulism diagnosed?

The most direct way of diagnosing botulism is to check for the presence of botulinum neurotoxin in the patient's blood, serum, or stool. Antitoxin is administered soon after the clinical diagnosis. Antitoxins cannot regenerate the nerves affected.  But it can neutralize the toxins and prevent further damage. Nerve cells have the capacity to regenerate themselves.

How is botulism treated?

Doctors often treat food-borne botulism by inducing vomiting. Botulism immune globulin medication is preferred in children. The cost of the treatment comes around $45,000 per patient. Patients might need breathing assistance and rehabilitation therapy to recover fully.

What can be done to prevent botulism?

Be careful with your food preparation, canning and storage. Keep your food free of harmful spores of bacteria.