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Botulism

What You Should Know About BOTULISM

WHAT IS BOTULISM?

Botulism is caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. This bacterium produces a toxin called botulinum that affects the nerves and paralyzes muscles. This syndrome is called botulism. There are three main types of botulism:

  • Foodborne botulism occurs when a person swallows something containing the toxin, and leads to illness within a few hours or days. Usually symptoms appear 12-36 hours after swallowing the toxin, but symptoms may begin anywhere from six hours to two weeks.
  • Infant botulism occurs in a small number of susceptible babies yearly. For unknown reasons the bacteria is able to grow in their intestines. Infants with botulism appear lethargic, eat poorly, are constipated, have a weak cry and poor muscle tone.
  • Wound botulism is caused by the growth of botulism bacteria in a sore. The bacteria in the sore secrete the toxin that causes botulism. In the United States this syndrome is seen almost exclusively in injection drug users.

WHERE IS CLOSTRIDIUM BOTULINUM, WHICH CAUSES BOTULISM, USUALLY FOUND?

Spores of the bacteria C botulinum are found in the soil worldwide.

CAN BOTULISM BE USED AS A WEAPON?

Terrorists with the equipment and skills necessary to grow cultures of the bacterium could purify the toxin to use as a weapon. Several countries developed botulinum toxin as an aerosol weapon. No human data exist on the effects of inhaling botulinum toxins, but it may resemble the foodborne syndrome.

HOW IS BOTULISM DIAGNOSED?

The most direct way to confirm the diagnosis is to find botulinum toxin in the patient's blood serum or stool sample.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF BOTULISM?

Symptoms include double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness which always descends the body: first shoulders, then upper arms, then lower arms, then thighs, calves, etc. Paralysis of breathing muscles can cause a person to stop breathing and die unless assisted by a ventilator. If symptoms occur, individuals should seek treatment immediately. Botulism can be fatal and should be considered a medical emergency.

IS THERE A WAY TO PREVENT BOTULISM?

The toxin is destroyed by high heat; if uncertain of food or water safety, discard or boil in a covered pan at high heat for a minimum of ten minutes.

IS THERE A VACCINE AGAINST BOTULIM? HOW IS BOTULISM TREATED?

There is no vaccine against botulism.