What is Botulism?

Botulism is a rare infection caused by the bacteria, Clostridium botulinum.  These germs make a toxin (poison) that affects your nervous system and can cause paralysis. This germ is found worldwide in soil and dust and also can be found in the intestines of animals.

Photo of a variety of canned vegetables

What are symptoms of botulism?

Symptoms include:

  • Tiredness, weakness, and dizziness
  • Droopy eyelids
  • Blurry or double vision
  • Loss of facial expression
  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dry mouth
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal swelling
  • Children under one year old may also have a different cry, appear tired, show little facial expression and have a floppy head because of loss of control

Botulism affects the nervous system and causes paralysis (unable to move).  This can affect your lungs and make it hard for you to breathe.  Weakness and paralysis starts from the shoulders and arms and moves down the body.  Botulism found in food usually takes 12 to 36 hours, and up to 8 days before you feel sick.  For wound botulism, it can take up to 2 weeks for symptoms to appear.

How does botulism spread?

There are three main ways people get botulism:

  • By eating food or drink that contains the toxin due to being improperly prepared, stored, or cooked.  This is mostly seen with canned foods, home preserved low-acid foods, and smoked and salted fish.
  • Eating food, such as honey, that contains the germ which then produce toxins in the gut to make you sick.  This is especially risky for infants under 12 months old and also adults with altered gut bacteria.
  • Through a wound infected with the germ. For example, botulism can spread when a wound touches soil contaminated with the germs or when injecting with contaminated drugs or equipment.

How long is it contagious?

Botulism cannot spread from person to person.

How is botulism treated?

Botulism is a rare and very serious illness.  If recognized early, it can be treated with a botulism antitoxin that can prevent the infection from getting worse.  Early diagnosis and treatment is very important because of the risk of paralysis of muscles that you use to breathe.  Treatment may include supportive care for symptoms.  If your breathing muscles are affected, you may require a ventilator to help you breathe until you recover.  For infected wounds, cleaning the wound and removal of damaged tissue may be needed.  It is important if you or your child develops symptoms to see a health care provider right away.

Recovery may take months if diagnosed and treated properly.

How is it prevented?

Ways to prevent botulism include:

  • Making sure you use safe home canning and food preservation methods.
  • Practice safe food handling, including storing and cooking your food properly.  Never eat food from cans that are dented, leaking, or bulging.  The food may still contain toxin that you cannot see.
  • Refrigerate foods, especially those made with fresh garlic or herbs soaked in oil. 
  • Do not use aluminum foil to wrap vegetables unless they will be cooked and eaten or unwrapped and refrigerated right away.
  • Do not feed honey to infants under one year old.
  • Avoid using illegal injection drugs and used drug equipment.
  • Thoroughly wash wounds and keep them clean.  See your health care provider if you are not sure that your wound is clean or healing well.
  • Wash your hands often with warm water and soap, especially before and after preparing foods and before eating.

For more information contact the Health Unit or speak to your health care provider.