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Botulism

Have you heard of food poisoning? It may sound strange, but you can be poisoned by food, especially food that wasn't cooked or preserved properly. Botulism (say: botch-uh-lih-zum) is a serious kind of food poisoning, but fortunately it's also very rare. Only about 110 people get it every year in the United States. About 300 million people live in the United States, so that's not very many.

What Is Botulism?

Botulism can be caused by foods that were canned or preserved at home. Maybe you've had fruits or vegetables that someone picked from the garden in the summer and jarred so they could be eaten during the winter months. These foods need to be cooked at very high temperatures to kill the germs.

If not, bacteria called Clostridium botulinum could cause botulism in the people who eat the food. You can't always see, smell, or taste these bacteria, but they release a poison, also called a toxin. This toxin travels through the blood to attach to the nerves that control muscles. From several hours to a week after eating contaminated food, the person may get sick.

Many botulism cases occur in infants, and experts think that's because their digestive systems can't protect them from germs the way an older kid's or an adult's digestive system can.

Infant botulism can happen if a baby younger than 1 year eats honey, so it's important that babies don't eat honey until they're older.

What Does Botulism Do?

Botulism stops the muscles from working, so someone with botulism needs medical care right away. As the toxin spreads, muscles become weak all over. Many people feel queasy and may throw up or have diarrhea.

Other symptoms can include:

  • difficulty swallowing
  • difficulty speaking
  • droopy eyelids
  • double or blurred vision
  • trouble breathing

What Will the Doctor Do?

After hearing about a person's symptoms or examining a baby, the doctor will probably test the blood or stool (poop) for the toxin. The doctor also might do a spinal tap or other tests to be sure.

Someone who has botulism will have to go to the hospital to be watched closely. It can take a long time for the person to get better.

Preventing Botulism

Kids aren't the ones canning food, but if their parents do, they can talk to them about the safety rules. And kids also can remind grown-ups that babies shouldn't have honey.

There's one more thing kids can do to prevent the spread of germs. Can you guess?

Wash your hands!

Reviewed by: Joel Klein, MD
Date reviewed: October 2011