Botulism is caused by Clostridium botulinum bacteria, which can contaminate people in several different ways. The bacteria can be spread through open sores, via contact with soil and untreated water, and by eating canned food that has been improperly preserved. These bacteria produce spores containing a toxin that can cause severe poisoning when eaten. Foods most commonly infected include home-canned vegetables; low-acid preserved vegetables such as green beans, spinach, and mushrooms; cured pork and ham; smoked or raw fish; and honey or corn syrup. Infants also can contract botulism, often by eating honey.
Symptoms occur between 12 and 36 hours after eating the contaminated food and include abdominal cramps; difficulty breathing, which could lead to respiratory failure; difficulty swallowing and speaking; double vision; dry mouth; nausea and vomiting; and weakness, with paralysis possible. Symptoms in infants include constipation, poor feeding and weak sucking, difficulty breathing, and overall weakness, with loss of muscle tone.
Physicians can diagnose a case of botulism through a physical exam in which reflexes, including the gag reflex, are either diminished or absent; eyelids are drooping; the bowel is paralyzed; and fluid is being retained. A blood test and stool culture can be done to confirm the diagnosis.
An antitoxin for the bacteria is available, and it should be administered immediately after diagnosis. Depending on the severity of the case, the individual may have to be admitted to the hospital. For breathing difficulties, a breathing machine may be needed. A feeding tube can be used if the patient is having trouble swallowing. Prompt treatment is the key to a full recovery.
If cans are bulging, throw them away immediately. Any preserved food that has an odor should also be discarded. To avoid botulism in infants, never feed them honey. When canning foods at home, sterilize the cans at 250°F (121°C) for 20 to 100 minutes to prevent contamination.