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What is botulism?

Botulism is a muscle-paralyzing illness caused by a nerve toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.  C. botulinum is commonly found in the soil and will form spores that allow them to survive in a dormant state until exposed to conditions that can support their growth.  There are three types of botulism caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.  Foodborne botulism occurs when a person ingests pre-formed toxin.  Infant botulism, the intestinal form, occurs in a small number of susceptible infants each year who consume the spores of C. botulinum.  Wound botulism occurs when wounds are infected with C. botulinum that secretes toxin.

How is botulism spread?
  • Foodborne botulism is always transmitted in food.  It is colorless, odorless, and, as far as known, tasteless.

  • Infant (intestinal) botulism is the most common form of botulism in the USA; it results from ingestion of Clostridium botulinum spores with subsequent outgrowth of toxin production in the large intestines.  Infant botulism affects infants under the age of 1 year almost exclusively.

  • Wound botulism, a wound infection, results from toxin produced by Clostridium botulinum.
What are the symptoms of botulism?

The following symptoms start 12-36 hours after eating a contaminated food, but can occur as late as several days.

  • The classic symptoms are symmetric muscle paralysis in variable severity caused by the bacterial toxin.

  • The muscle paralysis can cause double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness.  Recovery may take years depending on the severity of the disease.

  • Intestinal (infant) botulism is characterized by constipation, poor feeding, lethargy, listlessness, generalize weakness (“floppy baby”) and “failure to thrive” that may be followed by impaired respirations requiring use of a ventilator, and can progress to death.
How is botulism diagnosed and treated?
  • Clinical symptoms with variable severity and laboratory confirmation from serum, stool or suspected food.

  • Adult treatment:  Antitoxin is effective in reducing the severity of symptoms if administered early in the course of the disease. For wound botulism, the wound should be debrided.  Most patients eventually recover after weeks to months of supportive care.  Currently, antitoxin is not routinely given for treatment of infant botulism.
How can botulism be prevented?
  • Foodborne botulism has often been from home-canned foods with low acid content.  Persons who home-can food should use good hygienic practices.  Unusual sources include chopped garlic in oil, chili peppers or improperly handled baked potatoes.

  • Home canned foods should be boiled for 10 minutes before eating. 

  • Foods should be stored at the recommended temperature until served.

  • Honey can contain spores of Clostridium botulinum, which can cause infant botulism.  Honey should not be fed to children less than 12 months of age.

  • Never eat food from damaged cans.

  • Wound botulism can be prevented, by seeking medical treatment for infected wounds and by not using injectable street drugs.


See Also...
  CDC's web site
More information on Botulism

Contact Information:

Division of Epidemiology

275 East Main Street
Frankfort, KY 40621

(502) 564-3418 or
(502) 564-3261


Last Updated 2/1/2005