Everything to Know about Botulism! Causes, Symptoms & Diagnosis
Botulism is a rare but serious illness caused by eating foods that contain the toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Left untreated, botulism can lead to paralysis, speech and swallowing difficulties, and death. You may have heard about this bacteria and its risks recently because of an outbreak in northern Idaho.
But botulism has existed for centuries and has reared its ugly head from time to time. While there is no surefire way to prevent contracting it, you can take precautions so you’re aware of an outbreak in your area and know what to do if you suspect that you have contracted it. Here’s what you need to know about botulism.
What is Botulism?
Botulism is a rare illness caused by a toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. These bacteria are present throughout the environment, including soil. They are especially prevalent in homes that are not properly cleaned or stored. Foodborne botulism happens when someone eats foods that contain the toxin. The bacteria that produce the toxin can grow in various foods, including home-canned foods, honey, and syrups.
Botulism can lead to paralysis, speech and swallowing difficulties, and death. Botulism is a public health emergency because it is rare, can take months to treat, and can potentially be fatal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are about 15 cases of foodborne botulism per year in the U.S.
How Does it Spread?
The toxin in botulism is a neurotoxin that interferes with the nerve endings and muscles. Unfortunately, it is improbable that you will contract botulism from someone else. This is because the bacteria that produce the toxin are not contagious, so you cannot catch botulism from another person. The bacteria that produce the toxin grow in food that has not been properly preserved.
Foodborne botulism happens when someone eats foods that contain the toxin. It can grow in various foods, including home-canned foods, honey, and syrups. The bacteria that produce the toxin can grow in low-oxygen, low-sugar environments.
They are especially prevalent in improperly sterilized bottles or jars, and home-canned foods that were not cooked long enough were improperly sealed or were kept at too warm of a temperature.
Where does the Toxin Come from?
When you eat food that contains the toxin, the bacteria release the toxin into your intestinal tract. The toxin then travels to your blood, disrupting your nervous system. This can lead to various symptoms and can be fatal if left untreated. While botulism is not contagious, the bacteria that produce the toxin can be found on surfaces such as dust, soil, and water.
This means they can be present in the environment and in your food if you are not careful. Unfortunately, there are no ways to prevent bacteria from growing in food. However, there are ways to slow down the growth of the bacteria and prevent the toxin from forming. This can be done by carefully following proper food handling and storage practices.
Signs and Symptoms of Botulism
The signs and symptoms of botulism usually appear within 12 to 48 hours of eating the contaminated food. However, they can develop as late as 10 days later. The sooner someone recognizes the symptoms of botulism and gets treatment, the better. Most people with botulism experience the following symptoms:
1. Difficulty swallowing
A symptom in almost all cases of botulism, difficulty swallowing results from paralysis in muscles in the throat.
2. Double vision
One of the first signs of botulism many people notice is double vision.
3. Droopy eyelids, blurred vision, and drooping head:
The toxin interferes with nerve signals that control facial muscles and eyelids, causing eyelids to droop, which can cause double vision.
4. Slurred speech
The toxin interferes with nerve signals between the brain and muscles, including muscle movements involved in speech.
5. Muscle weakness
The toxin paralyzes the muscles responsible for movement, including those in the arms, legs, and torso, leading to slurred speech, drooping eyelids, and double vision.
6. Difficulty swallowing
The toxin can interfere with the gag reflex, a natural reaction preventing choking. It can also cause a swallowing reflex, which can lead to choking.
How are People Diagnosed with Botulism?
There is no blood test or single medical test that can confirm that someone has botulism. Instead, medical professionals will look for signs of botulism and compare these to a list of possible diseases. They will also review the person’s history of eating foods, eating with others, and other activities to pinpoint the cause. However, it can be difficult to diagnose botulism.
This is because other diseases can also cause the symptoms of botulism. While there is no medical test to diagnose botulism, there are certain factors that can help doctors make a diagnosis of botulism. These include the person’s symptoms, when the symptoms began, and what the person ate before the symptoms appeared.
Treating Someone with Botulism
Treating botulism is a lengthy process. It can take months for the nerves and muscles to recover from the damage done by the toxin. People with botulism are treated in a hospital and given antibiotics to prevent secondary infection. They are also given a drug called an antitoxin that neutralizes the effects of the toxin. This helps prevent muscles from degenerating further.
While there is no surefire cure for botulism, symptoms can be treated. Signs and symptoms of botulism are treated with a drug called naloxone, which blocks the effects of the toxin and helps muscles recover.
Some people with botulism might need to be in a medical coma while their bodies recover. This is a very rare procedure called a medically induced coma. It is done to help prevent muscles from degenerating further.
Final Words: Understanding Botulism
Botulism is rare, but it is important to recognize the signs and symptoms and know how to treat it if you or a loved one becomes infected. While there is no surefire way to prevent contracting it, you can take precautions so you’re aware of an outbreak in your area and know what to do if you suspect that you have contracted it.