Botulism - Are you at risk?
Are You At Risk for Foodborne Botulism?
Botulism is not a common illness, but a recent outbreak shows just how serious it can be. To protect yourself know the causes, symptoms, and treatments.
By Jennifer Acosta Scott
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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Foodborne illnesses affect more than 76 million people in the United States each year, according to the National Institutes of Health, and one of the most serious types is botulism. The most recent outbreak left one person dead and at least 23 others hospitalized after exposure to the foodborne bacteria at a church potluck.
Caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, botulism is a relatively rare condition — only about 145 cases are reported to the U.S. federal government each year, and of these, only 15 percent are foodborne. But the most recent outbreak demonstrates just how serious the illness can be.
Those who have it could be in serious danger if they do not seek treatment promptly, says Robynne Chutkan, MD, assistant professor in the division of gastroenterology at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
"It's the same bacteria that they make Botox from to smooth out wrinkles," Dr. Chutkan says. "Clostridium botulinum produces a neurotoxin that paralyzes the nerves in the body. Eventually it can affect the respiratory muscles, and people can stop breathing."
Unlike many other foodborne illnesses, botulism is not contagious. People generally acquire it through eating food that is contaminated with the bacteria. The botulinum spores thrive and multiply into toxin-producing cells in low-acid environments with very little oxygen, so improperly canned low-acid foods, such as vegetables and cured meats, are often the cause of foodborne botulism. "It doesn't typically happen with fresh food, since the bacteria really need an environment that contains a low level of oxygen," Chutkan says. That's why home canning is a potential culprit.
Clostridium botulinum also occurs naturally in dust and dirt, as well as in honey. In some cases, infants can develop botulism by ingesting Clostridium botulinum spores. Older children and adults who ingest the spores this way can usually process them without trouble. But an infant's immature digestive system may allow the spores to multiply, causing the same neurotoxic effects as foodborne botulism.
How to Recognize Botulism Symptoms
Botulism symptoms usually begin about 18 to 36 hours after eating contaminated food. Signs of botulism include weak muscles, drooping eyelids, and double vision. In rare cases, you may also experience nausea and vomiting. Infants with botulism may show signs such as weak cries, constipation, a flat facial expression, and difficulty breathing.
If you have any of these botulism symptoms, you should immediately go to the nearest hospital, Chutkan says. An antitoxin that blocks the action of the neurotoxin can be administered. In severe cases, a ventilator can be used to keep the body supplied with oxygen until the breathing muscles begin to work again.
Preventing Botulism: Safeguards to Practice
While there is no fail-safe way to prevent botulism, there are ways to greatly reduce your risk of developing it. When canning food at home, follow all safe-canning principles, such as washing fresh food, sterilizing jars, and canning low-acid foods with a pressure canner at very high temperatures. Using old-fashioned canning jars with wire bails is not recommended because they may not seal properly.
If you buy or make flavored oils, such as garlic-infused olive oil, refrigerate them rather than storing at room temperature, which could lead to the growth of Clostridium botulinum.
To reduce the risk of infant botulism, don't give honey to children under 1 year of age, since it is a known source of Clostridium botulinum. Processed foods that contain honey, such as honey graham crackers, should also be avoided in this age group. There is also a remote possibility that corn syrup may contain botulinum spores, so check with your doctor before giving it to your baby.
While botulism is rare, it does occur. Take precautions, and if you suspect you've been exposed to the bacteria, seek fast medical attention.
Video: Program 10 -- Preventing Botulism in Home Canning
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