What is Botulism?

Botulism is a rare illness caused by a toxin from bacteria. The toxin can cause paralysis, and at its worst, can be fatal. Three kinds of botulism exist: foodborne, wound, and infant. A person contracts foodborne botulism when they ingest foods that have botulinum toxins in them. Home-canned foods are the most common source for foodborne botulism. Wound botulism occurs when clostridium botulinum grows in a wound and produces toxin. Infant botulism occurs when an infant eats the spores of the bacteria. The spores multiply in the intestines and then release their poison. In all, there are 7 different types of botulinum toxin. Symptoms of botulism vary greatly and typically causes weakness that progresses rapidly. Patients may experience double or blurred vision, droopy eyelids, difficulty speaking and a dry mouth. In more severe cases, patient have trouble swallowing and breathing. Gastrointestinal symptoms may occur before or after paralysis.

What causes Botulism?

Botulism is a rare illness caused by a toxin from the bacteria clostridia botulinum . The toxin interferes with the release of acetylcholine from the end of the nerve. Acetylcholine attaches to the muscle causing contraction and if it not available, the patient will become weak. Symptoms usually appear within 12-36 hours of ingestion of the toxin and generally progress rapidly. There are several methods to treat botulism. Supportive care for feeding and breathing may be required for several weeks after onset. Foodborne and wound botulism can be treated with intravenous antitoxins. The antitoxins do not reverse preexisting neurologic impairment, but it may slow and halt further progress of the disease. Wound botulism can be treated surgically or with antibiotics.

Who gets Botulism?

The disease has been reported worldwide. Each type of toxin is prevalent in different areas. Approximately 110 people acquire botulism within the US per year: 25% or so of those are foodborne, 72% are infantile, and the remaining 3% are from wounds. About 8% of all cases are fatal.

How is Botulism diagnosed?

Physicians must be careful when diagnosing botulism because it may cause symptoms similar to diseases such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, myasthenia gravis, Lambert-Eaton syndrome, and strokes. Botulism is typically diagnosed based on the clinical history and examination of a patient. Blood tests and EMG can provide more information to support the diagnosis and exclude other causes of paralysis.

How is Botulism treated?

To avoid botulism, is it important that both home-canned and commercially canned foods be prepared properly. Proper preparation includes adequately heating the food before it is eaten. Spoiled food should be discarded. To avoid infant botulism, it is recommended that children less than 12 months of age not be given honey.  

More Information

National Organization for Rare Disorders
Center for Disease Control

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