Foodborne Illness

Common bacteria and viruses that cause food poisoning. An informational site sponsored by Marler Clark

Clostridium Botulinum (Botulism)

What is Botulism?

Botulism is a rare but potentially life-threatening bacterial illness. Clostridium Botulinum bacteria grows on food and produces toxins that, when ingested, cause paralysis. Botulism poisoning is extremely rare, but so dangerous that each case is considered a public health emergency. Studies have shown that there is a 35 to 65 percent chance of death for patients who are not treated immediately and effectively with botulism antitoxin.

Infant botulism is the most common form of botulism. See below for symptoms specific to infant botulism.

Most of the botulism cases reported each year come from foods that are not canned properly at home. Botulism from commercially canned food is rare, but commercial canned chili products were identified as the source of a botulism outbreak in 2007.

Symptoms of Botulism

Botulism neurotoxins prevent neurotransmitters from functioning properly. This means that they inhibit motor control. As botulism progresses, the patient experiences paralysis from top to bottom, starting with the eyes and face and moving to the throat, chest, and extremities. When paralysis reaches the chest, death from inability to breathe results unless the patient is ventilated. Symptoms of botulism generally appear 12 to 72 hours after eating contaminated food.  With treatment, illness lasts from 1 to 10 days.  Full recovery from botulism poisoning can take weeks to months.  Some people never fully recover.

In general, symptoms of botulism poisoning include the following:
   

  • Nausea
  •      
  • Vomiting
  •      
  • Fatigue
  •      
  • Dizziness
  •      
  • Double vision
  •      
  • Dry skin, mouth and throat
  •      
  • Drooping eyelids
  •                    
  • Difficulty swallowing
  •      
  • Slurred speech
  •      
  • Muscle Weakness
  •      
  • Body Aches
  •      
  • Paralysis
  •      
  • Lack of fever

Infant botulism takes on a different form. Symptoms in an infant include lethargy, poor appetite, constipation, drooling, drooping eyelids, a weak cry, and paralysis.

Long-Term Effects of Botulism

The majority of botulism patients never fully recover their pre-illness health. After three months to a year of recovery, persisting side-effects are most likely permanent. These long-term effects most often include fatigue, weakness, dizziness, dry mouth, and difficulty performing strenuous tasks. Patients also report a generally less happy and peaceful psychological state than before their illness.

Botulism Diagnosis

If a patient displays symptoms of botulism, a doctor will most likely take a blood, stool, or gastric secretion sample. The most common test for botulism is injecting the patient’s blood into a mouse to see whether the mouse displays signs of botulism, since other testing methods take up to a week.

Sometimes botulism can be difficult to diagnose, since symptoms can be mild, or confused with those of Guillan-Barre Syndrome.

Treatment of Botulism

If found early, botulism can be treated with an antitoxin that blocks circulation of the toxin in the bloodstream. This prevents the patient’s case from worsening, but recovery still takes several weeks.

Prevention of Botulism

Since botulism poisoning most commonly comes from foods improperly canned at home, the most important step in preventing botulism is to follow proper canning procedure. Ohio State University’s Extension Service provides a useful guide to sanitary canning techniques.

Further botulism prevention techniques include:

  • Not eating canned food if the container is bulging or if it smells bad, although not all strains on Clostridium Botulinum smell
  • Storing garlic or herb-infused oil in the refrigerator
  • Not storing baked potatoes at room temperature

To prevent infant botulism, do not give even a small amount of honey to an infant, as honey is one source of infant botulism.

References

Mayo Clinic. (2010). Botulism. Available at http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/botulism/DS00657.