What Is Botulism and What Causes It?


Botulism is a muscle-paralyzing disease that is caused by the bacteria called Clostridium botulinum. There are three types of botulism: infant botulism, foodborne botulism and wound botulism. All forms of botulism are serious medical conditions that require medical attention. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States sees on average 145 cases a year. Of those 145 cases, 15 percent are foodborne botulism, 65 percent are infant botulism and 20 percent are wound botulism.

Infant Botulism

Bacteria spores (found everywhere in the environment) are ingested and grow in the baby’s intestinal tract, usually between the ages of 2 and 6 months. The signs and symptoms include constipation, weak sucking and crying, decreased movement, trouble swallowing, muscle weakness, and problems breathing. Symptoms begin three to 30 days after an infant consumes the bacteria. Babies are admitted into the intensive care unit (ICU) and treated. According to the website KidsHealth, the United States sees fewer than 100 cases of infant botulism a year.

Foodborne Botulism

Foodborne botulism is a serious, paralytic illness caused by a nerve toxin that is produced by the Clostridium botulinum. Foodborne botulism is mainly caused by consuming canned foods that are not cooked properly. The toxins may not give the food a bad taste or a bad odor. According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, symptoms include drooping eyelids, blurred or double vision, difficulty swallowing and speaking, and muscle weakness. The Mayo Clinic reports nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramps with foodborne botulism. Symptoms occur 12 to 36 hours after consuming the contaminated food. Treatment includes hospitalization and it may take months to fully recover. If the patient goes untreated, it can cause paralysis in the arms and legs and affect the muscles used for breathing, which will lead to death.

Wound Botulism

Wound botulism occurs when the bacteria spores enter an open wound and reproduce. According to the World Health Organization, the symptoms are the same as for foodborne botulism; however, it may take symptoms two weeks to appear in the patient. The Mayo Clinic reports that fever can be present with wound botulism. Patients will be treated in a hospital with an antitoxin and possibly undergo surgery to remove the infected tissue.


According to the Mayo Clinic, all types of botulism affect the body’s muscle control, which can cause many complications, including difficulty speaking, trouble swallowing, weakness that usually begins with the shoulders and works its way down the body, and shortness of breath. Since botulism affects muscle control, having trouble breathing is a life-threatening complication of botulism. Paralysis of the lungs can cause the person to stop breathing and die if mechanical ventilation is not administered.


When canning, use a pressure cooker to cook foods at 250 degrees F (121 degrees C) for at least 30 minutes to ensure killing the bacteria. Before serving the canned foods, consider boiling them for 10 minutes. Do not consume foods if the container is bulging. Oil infused with garlic or herbs can be a source of botulism, so store these oils in the refrigerator and not at room temperature. To prevent infant botulism, do not give babies any honey (or any products containing honey) if they are younger than a year old. Clostridium botulinum can contaminate honey, according to the website KidsHealth. To prevent wound botulism, avoid the use of injection drugs. The equipment used to inject drugs can contain bacteria.

About this Author

Janelle Vaesa received her Master in Public Health degree in 2008 and Bachelor of Science in health and human performance in 2006, both from the University of Louisville. Vaesa has worked in a variety of settings, focusing on improving the health of clients. As a new writer, Vaesa has published articles at InfoBarrel and AssociatedContent.