Botulism Food Poisoning

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is botulism food poisoning?

Botulism is a disease caused by the bacterium scientifically known as Clostridium botulinum. Botulism food poisoning occurs when a toxin produced by the bacteria is consumed in improperly preserved foods. The disease is caused by a potent neurotoxin produced by the bacteria. It manifests as abdominal cramping, double or blurred vision, difficulty breathing, muscle weakness, and other serious symptoms. Botulism is not spread from person to person.

Botulism food poisoning is a rare disease in the United States. About 110 cases of botulism occur in the United States every year, and the majority occur in infants (Source: PubMed Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source ).

Most commonly, people contract botulism food poisoning from eating home-canned foods or other contaminated foods, which may contain honey, corn syrup, baked potatoes, and cured meats or fish. Large outbreaks have been described involving commercially-prepared food products – most were outside of the United States.

The signs and symptoms of botulism food poisoning can last for one to two weeks or even longer. The disease course varies among individuals. Symptoms usually appear 12 to 36 hours after ingesting contaminated food, and can include muscle paralysis caused by the extremely potent toxin. Botulism food poisoning is treated with botulinum antitoxin and hospitalization (Source: CDC).

Botulism food poisoning is a life-threatening condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you suspect botulism food poisoning or if you, or someone you are with, have symptoms of difficulty breathing, abdominal pain or cramping, blurred or double vision, weakness (loss of strength), paralysis or inability to move a body part, vomiting, or drooping eyelids.

What are the symptoms of botulism food poisoning?

Botulism food poisoning causes a number of symptoms related to the effects of the botulinum toxin. The symptoms differ in adults and infants.

Common symptoms of botulism food poisoning in adults

Symptoms of botulism food poisoning in adults include:

    Common symptoms of botulism food poisoning in infants

    The most common symptoms of botulism food poisoning in infants include:

    • Difficulty controlling head movement
    • Difficulty sucking or feeding
    • Drooping eyelids
    • Fatigue
    • Hypotonicity (flaccid limbs)
    • Irritability
    • Muscle weakness
    • Paralysis
    • Weak cry

    Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

    Symptoms from botulism food poisoning may be so severe that a life-threatening situation can develop. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of the following symptoms:

    • Abnormal pupil size or reactivity to light
    • Blurred or double vision
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Difficulty swallowing
    • Drooping eyelids
    • Facial weakness (both sides of the face)
    • Garbled or slurred speech or inability to speak
    • Nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain or cramping
    • Paralysis or inability to move a body part

      What causes botulism food poisoning?

      Clostridium botulinum is found in soil and untreated water. The bacteria create spores that subsist in incorrectly preserved or canned food, where they lead to the presence of bacteria that produce the botulinum toxin. Botulism food poisoning commonly occurs when the toxin is ingested. Ingesting even minute quantities can cause severe poisoning. The foods most commonly known to cause botulism food poisoning are smoked or raw fish, cured pork and ham, honey or corn syrup, and home-canned vegetables. The disease has also occurred from oil infused with garlic and baked potatoes. In infants, the most common causes are exposure to contaminated soil and eating contaminated honey.

      What are the risk factors for botulism food poisoning?

      Risk factors for botulism food poisoning include the consumption of home-canned foods and foods that have been improperly preserved. Not all people with risk factors will get botulism food poisoning.

      Reducing your risk of botulism food poisoning

      You can lower your risk of botulism food poisoning by:

      • Discarding bulging cans of food, any bad-smelling food, and expired preserved foods

      • Refraining from giving honey to infants

      • Refrigerating foil-wrapped baked potatoes instead of leaving them out at room temperature

      • Sterilizing home-canned foods by pressure cooking them for 30 minutes at 250 degrees Fahrenheit

      How is botulism food poisoning treated?

      Botulinum antitoxin in injected form is the mainstay of treatment for botulism food poisoning in adults. Infants are usually treated intravenously with immune globulin.

      If the patient experiences breathing difficulty, hospitalization is required to establish a clear airway and provide ventilator support. A tube may be inserted through the patient’s mouth or nose or into the windpipe to provide an airway for oxygen. A breathing machine may be needed. Intravenous fluids are commonly prescribed if swallowing difficulty prevents adequate fluid intake. If the patient is unable to eat, a feeding tube may be inserted in the nose to provide nutrients.

      What are the potential complications of botulism food poisoning?

      Complications of botulism food poisoning include:

      • Aspiration pneumonia and infection
      • Long-lasting weakness
      • Permanent disability
      • Prolonged nervous system problems
      • Respiratory distress
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      Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
      Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 19
      View All Infections and Contagious Diseases Articles
      THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
      1. Botulism. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. /. 
      2. Botulism. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH.
      3. Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R (Eds). Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, 7th ed. Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2010.
      4. Feigin RD, Cherry JD, Demmler-Harrison GJ, Kaplan SL (Eds), Textbook of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, 6th ed. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2009.