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What is Botulism? Print E-mail
Written by Amanda Wattson, MD   
Wednesday, 07 October 2009
Botulism is a rare but potentially fatal disorder. It is caused by a toxin, or poison, produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum.
What is going on in the body?

Botulinum toxins are among the most powerful poisons known. There are three forms of botulism:
- Foodborne botulism can occur when a person eats food containing Clostridium botulinum bacteria.
- Infant botulism occurs when a baby ingests the spores of the bacteria. The spores then grow in the baby's intestine and produce toxin.
- Wound botulism can be acquired when a wound becomes infected with the bacteria. Black-tar heroin injections are a modern source of wound botulism.

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

Botulism is caused by a toxin made by the Clostridium botulinum bacteria. Foodborne botulism in adults and children is acquired by eating improperly preserved or stored food that contains the toxin. Home canned food is a major source of foodborne botulism.

Infant botulism can be caused by eating honey, which may contain botulism spores. It can also be caused by eating food containing the toxin.

Wound botulism occurs when the bacteria enter a wound, grow, and produce the toxin. Black-tar heroin injections are a prime source of wound botulism.

What are the treatments for the condition?

Early diagnosis and treatment of botulism is important. It is important to remove any remaining contaminated food from the digestive system. The healthcare provider may order enemas, or induce vomiting.

Foodborne and wound botulism can be treated with an antitoxin. This medicatiion blocks the action of toxin in the blood. Antitoxin doesn't undo the damage already done, but it can slow or prevent further damage. Intravenous fluids can be given if a person can't swallow. A ventilator, or artificial breathing machine, is often used to treat breathing difficulties.

Antibiotics should only be used to treat secondary infections. Use of antibiotics kill botulism spores in the intestine. This can result in the absorption of even more toxin.
What are the side effects of the treatments?

Many people experience allergic reactions to the antitoxin derived from horse serum. There is a human-derived antitoxin that does not cause as many reactions.
What happens after treatment for the condition?

With proper treatment, the body is often able to repair the damage over a period of several months. An individual may have fatigue and shortness of breath for several more years.

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