Botulism is a rare, but life-threatening illness. It affects the nerves. It needs to be treated right away.
Botulism is caused by bacteria that makes 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.
Botulism risk is higher for:
- Those who eat poorly preserved, cooked, or canned foods—especially home canned
- Babies who eat honey
- Those with a dirty or infected wound (rare)
- IV drug users (rare)
Symptoms start in the face and eyes. Without care, muscles in the arms, legs, and torso will not move. This includes muscles that help with breathing.
Symptoms range from mild to serious.
In adults they may be:
- Vision or speech problems
- Droopy eyelids
- The feeling of spinning while standing still— vertigo
- Sore throat
- Dry mouth
- Problems swallowing or breathing
In babies they may be:
- Not eating or sucking
- Little energy
- Floppy muscles
- Weak cry
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done.
Tests will be done to rule out other conditions and find the source of infection. They may include:
Treatment will start right away, even if lab tests are not ready. This may involve:
- Medicines such as:
- Antitoxin—to stop further nerve damage
- Antibiotics for any infected wounds
- Supportive care in the hospital
- Breathing support with a ventilator
- Surgery to clean any wound, if needed
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The risk of botulism can be lowered by:
- Learning how to can and cook food the right way
- Not feeding honey to babies under 1 year old
- Refrigerating oils that have garlic or herbs
- Not eating food from a bulging can
- Seeking care for wounds
- Not using IV drugs
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Food Safety—US Department of Health and Human Services
Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education
Public Health Agency of Canada
Botulism. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/botulism. Accessed February 1, 2021.
Botulism. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/botulism. Accessed February 1, 2021.
Botulism. Food Safety—US Department of Health & Human Service website. Available at: https://www.foodsafety.gov/poisoning/causes/bacteriaviruses/botulism/index.html. Accessed February 1, 2021.
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. Accessed February 1, 2021.
Botulism. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/infectious-diseases/anaerobic-bacteria/botulism. Accessed February 1, 2021.
Last reviewed September 2020 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP Last Updated: 2/1/2021