What Are the Causes of Botulism?

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  • Written By: A.E. Freeman
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2018
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A bacterium, Clostridium botulinum, produces neurotoxins that result in botulism. Someone can ingest the bacteria, inhale it, or contract it through an open wound. There are generally three types of botulism: infant, food-borne, and wound botulism. Other causes include breathing in the neurotoxin in a laboratory and getting injections such as Botox, though these are much more rare than the other causes. No matter what the causes of botulism are, all types can be deadly.

Babies less than one year of age shouldn't eat honey, because the bacteria in the honey is one of the causes of botulism. If the baby ingests the bacteria, it can grow and thrive in his intestines, producing the toxins. Although honey will cause botulism, infants are more likely to be exposed to the bacteria by eating contaminated dirt.

Adults can get botulism by eating foods contaminated with C. botulinum. Canned goods, particularly those that are canned at home and do not contain much acid, can carry the bacteria. Other causes of botulism from food include eating fermented seafood or other contaminated foods, such as potatoes, peppers, or oil.

Other causes of botulism include infected wounds. If a person has an open cut, even a minor one, it can become infected with C. botulinum. The bacteria can grow and produce the toxins that lead to botulism. Injecting drugs, such as heroin, with needles that have C. botulinum on them can cause wound botulism as well.


The symptoms of botulism include muscle weakness and paralysis. A baby with botulism will seem floppy and irritable and may have constipation too. Food-borne botulism also causes nausea and vomiting. Food-borne and infant botulism symptoms usually show up within three days of exposure. Symptoms from wound botulism can take up to 10 days to appear in some cases.

Although food contaminated with botulism bacteria will not taste any different than safe food, a person may look at a canned good and notice that it is slightly bulging. If a can of food is bulging, it shouldn't be eaten. Even tasting the food can put someone at risk. To prevent infant botulism, babies shouldn't eat even the smallest amount of honey.

Proper care should be taken when fermenting or canning foods at home. Pressure-cooking canned goods for half an hour at 250 degrees Fahrenheit (121 degrees Celsius) will kill the bacteria. Salt on fermented fish will reduce the chance that C. botulinum will grow during the fermenting process.



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