Botulism is a rare but serious illness caused by a toxin that attacks the body’s nerves and causes difficulty breathing, muscle paralysis, and sometimes death. The toxin is made most often by Clostridium botulinum bacteria. These bacteria can produce the toxin in food, wounds, and the intestines of infants and rarely in the intestines of adults following surgery. If the toxin gets into your bloodstream, it can attack your nerves and block signals that control your body’s muscles, most often starting with those in your eyes, face, mouth, and throat. If left untreated, the toxin can cause paralysis to spread to your arms, legs, and muscles involved in breathing. Find out key facts about botulism and how to prevent it.
- Botulism is a rare but serious paralytic illness that often affects previously healthy people.
- Botulism is caused by botulinum toxin, one of the most lethal known toxins.
- Clostridium botulinum can make spores and, under certain conditions that rarely occur, the spores can grow and make botulinum toxin.
- Even taking a small taste of food containing botulinum toxin can cause botulism.
- Kinds of botulism include foodborne, wound, infant, adult intestinal colonization, and iatrogenic.
Foodborne botulism is often caused by eating home-canned foods that have not been canned properly. Commercially canned foods are much less likely to be a source of botulism because modern commercial canning processes kill C. botulinum spores.
We don’t know how most babies with infant botulism came into contact with C. botulinum spores, but we do know that these spores can be found in honey. Do not feed honey to children younger than 12 months because it has been linked to some cases of infant botulism.
Foodborne botulism can be caused by a food that is not prepared or stored properly. In Alaska, foodborne botulism is often caused by traditional Alaska Native foods, including fermented fish, because of the way these foods are sometimes prepared or stored.
Sometimes a wound can get infected with C. botulinum. The most common way this happens is when a contaminated illicit drug, such as black tar heroin, is injected into muscle or skin. Wound botulism also has been reported following traumatic injuries, such as motorcycle crashes and surgeries.
Botulism: Countering Common Misperceptions
- If you preserve, can, or ferment your own foods, you can reduce the chance of getting botulism from these foods by:
- Following safe home canning instructions as recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canningexternal icon
- Following all instructions for washing, cleaning, and sterilizing items used in canning
- Using pressure canners for low-acid foods like potatoes, most other vegetables, and meats
- Everyone can reduce their chances of getting foodborne botulism by:
- Refrigerating homemade oils infused with garlic or herbs and throwing away any unused oils after 4 days
- Keeping potatoes that have been baked while wrapped in aluminum foil hot (at temperatures above 140°F) until they are served, or refrigerating them with the foil loosened so they get air.
- Prevent wound botulism by keeping wounds clean and not injecting illicit drugs. If wounds appear infected, seek medical care quickly.
- Honey can contain the bacteria that causes infant botulism, so do not feed honey to children younger than 12 months. This includes pacifiers filled with or dipped in honey.
- If you need an injection of botulinum toxin for a medical condition, your doctor will choose the safest dose. If you get an injection of botulinum toxin for cosmetic reasons, be sure to go to a licensed professional.