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What are Symptoms of Botulism?

By J. Beam
Updated May 17, 2024
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The symptoms of botulism can vary depending on which of the three known types a person has contracted, but generally include dry mouth, difficulty swallowing, blurred or double vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, and progressive muscle weakness. The three types or classifications of this disease are food-borne, wound, and infant. Botulism, though rare, is a serious paralytic disease, so most symptoms relate to the central nervous system.

Botulism is caused by nerve toxins that are produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. This group of bacteria is commonly found in soil and can occasionally make its way into food. It is most frequently discovered in home-canned foods, though the bacteria have been discovered in commercial products as well. Clostridium botulinum is one of the only bacterium that can survive in honey. Honey and corn syrup are the most common sources of infant botulism, the most frequent type contracted.

Infant botulism accounts for roughly 75% of the estimated 110 confirmed botulism cases each year in the United States. It can happen when a baby under the age of one ingests the spores of the C. botulinum bacteria. Parents may mistakenly believe it is acceptable to give an infant water sweetened with honey, but this is a leading cause of the disease. While the bacteria can be ingested by older children and adults and quickly passed through the digestive system with no problems, an infant’s digestive system is not fully developed and far more sensitive to intrusion.

Food borne and wound botulism account for roughly 25% of annual cases in the United States. Food borne botulism is more common and is mostly the result of improper home canning, though it has on rare occasion been caused by commercial canned fish. The disease can be prevented by following stringent procedures when canning at home and by avoiding commercial canned goods packaged in bulging cans, which is a potential indicator of contamination.

Wound botulism is the rarest form of the disease. It is caused when a wound is infected and the C. botulinum bacteria are present. While it has historically been very uncommon, this form is linked to illegal drugs, such as black-tar heroin, and cases tend to increase along with drug use.

The symptoms of botulism can develop as soon as six hours after ingestion, or they may be delayed for up to a week. They are frequently noticeable within the first 36 hours. As it progresses, the disease causes paralysis and eventually affects the respiratory system, which can be fatal.

It can be difficult to diagnose botulism, as its symptoms are similar to other diseases. However, if botulism is suspected, it is usually necessary to hospitalize the patient. Botulism is a completely treatable disease with proper medical care, but recovery can take a very long time depending on the severity. While ingestion of the naturally occurring botulinum toxin can be fatal, it is commercially manufactured for cosmetic purposes, better known as Botox®.

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Discussion Comments

By chicada — On Apr 27, 2011

@fiorite & comparables- Botulism is always considered a medical emergency because it is a neurotoxin and can affect respiratory function. A breathing tube may be inserted in all cases of botulism poisoning, especially if the symptoms were not diagnosed early.

Botulism post-treatment may also be lengthy. If the case was severe, physical therapy may be necessary to help the patient relearn lost abilities and motor skills. The patient may need to relearn how to speak, swallow, walk, or other functions.

By Fiorite — On Apr 26, 2011

@comparables- The treatments for botulism toxin are unique to the type of botulism poisoning. If you ingest botulism through food, the doctor will likely induce vomiting and bowel movements to clear the toxin from the body. In the case of wound botulism, the doctor will likely cut away the infected flesh to prevent the toxin from spreading.

In both cases, the doctor may administer an antitoxin, but only if it is caught in the early stages. The antitoxin is only effective at preventing further damage so if the toxin has had too much time in your system, the damage may already be done.

In babies, the toxin cannot be treated with antitoxin. Doctors will treat babies with a botulism immune globulin. If the baby is having trouble breathing, a tube may be inserted to assist.

By Comparables — On Apr 24, 2011

What are the treatments for botulism poisoning? Are the different treatments unique to each type of botulism poisoning or is it the same regardless of the type of poisoning?

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