Botulism is a rare illness that affects the nerves. It can be deadly, so it needs to be treated right away.
Botulism is caused by bacteria that make toxins. It can cause a type of food poisoning. Rarely, the bacteria enter the blood through wounds, or the toxins are inhaled.
A very small amount of the toxin can cause illness.
The risk of botulism is higher in:
- People who eat poorly preserved, cooked, canned, or fermented foods
- Babies who are fed honey
- People who have a dirty or infected wound (rare)
- IV drug users (rare)
Symptoms range from mild to severe. Adults may have:
- Sore throat
- Dry mouth
- A feeling of spinning while standing still
- Droopy eyelids
- Vision or speech problems
- Problems swallowing or breathing
Babies may have:
- Problems feeding
- Lack of energy
- Floppy muscles
- A weak cry
The doctor will ask about symptoms, diet, and past health. A physical exam will be done. You may be asked about any high risk foods that were recently eaten. If the doctor suspects botulism, treatment may be started while tests are still being done.
Tests will be done to look for signs of the bacteria or toxin. These may include:
Emergency care will be needed. The goal of treatment is to stop the toxin from causing more damage. This may involve:
- Medicines such as:
- Antitoxin—to stop further nerve damage
- Antibiotics—to treat any infected wounds
- Machines to help with breathing
- Surgery to clean an infected wound if one is present
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The risk of botulism may be lowered by:
- Learning how to can and cook food safely
- Not feeding honey to babies under 1 year of age
- Refrigerating oils that have garlic or herbs
- Not eating food from a bulging can
- Seeking care for wounds
- Not using IV drugs
- Botulism. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/botulism.
- Botulism. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/botulism.
- Botulism. Food Safety—US Department of Health & Human Service website. Available at: https://www.foodsafety.gov/food-poisoning/bacteria-and-viruses#botulism.
- Botulism. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/infectious-diseases/anaerobic-bacteria/botulism.
- Friziero A, Sperti C, et al. Foodborne botulism presenting as small bowel obstruction: a case report. BMC Infectious Diseases, 1/12/2021; 21(1): 1-4.
- Infant botulism. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/botulism.html?ref=search.
- David L. Horn, MD, FACP
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