What to Know About Botulism

A baby from Woodstock, Virginia recently contracted botulism -- an illness that has become so rare that there are only about 145 cases in the country per year.

Here's what you need to know about it:

Botulism is a rare but potentially fatal illness caused by bacteria which occurs in soil, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

There are five main ways to contract botulism. 65 percent of botulism cases relate to infants, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Babies can contract botulism by coming in contact with the bacteria spores in the air, which then grow inside the intestines and release toxin.

Food-borne botulism can poison anyone who eats contaminated food, especially home-canned foods. Adults can contract the same form of botulism as babies, which is called adult intestinal toxemia. Wounds can also be infected by botulism, typically from black-tar heroin injections. Latrogenic botulism can occur from accidentally overdosing from the botulinum toxin.

The bacteria thrives in low-oxygen conditions. Because the bacteria forms spores, it can survive in a dormant state until it is exposed to conditions that allow it to grow.

The botulism toxin causes muscle paralysis and symptoms include: double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness. Babies with botulism may appear lethargic, feed poorly, suffer constipation, have a weak cry or poor muscle tone.

With food-borne botulism, symptoms generally begin 18 to 36 hours after eating contaminated food, but can happen after 6 hours or up to 10 days later.

The respiratory failure and paralysis that accompanies botulism may require a patient to be on a breathing machine or ventilator for weeks or months along with intensive medical and nursing care. Botulism can also be treated with an antitoxin.

Patients who survive being poisoned by the botulinum toxin may be plagued with fatigue and shortness of breath, requiring long-term therapy.

Botulism can result in death, although in the past 50 years the death rate has fallen from 50 percent to 3-5 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 

When it comes to food-borne botulism, babies should stay away from honey, home-canned vegetables and fruits, and corn syrup, according to Foodsafety.gov.

Adults should avoid home-canned foods with a low acid content, improperly canned commercial foods, home-canned or fermented fish, herb-infused oils, baked potatoes in aluminum foil, cheese sauce, bottled garlic, or foods held warm for extended periods of time, reports Foodsafety.gov. 

If you eat something home-canned, it is recommended you heat it first and don’t leave it sitting out.

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