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Medically reviewed by Last updated on Dec 4, 2023.

What is botulism?

Botulism is a rare but serious illness that attacks your nerves. Toxins (poison) from bacteria called Clostridium botulinum get into your bloodstream and attack your nerves. Botulism must be treated quickly because it can cause trouble breathing or paralysis, and is life-threatening. Botulism is not contagious from person to person.

What are the main types of botulism?

  • Foodborne botulism develops when you eat foot that contains the botulism toxin. Food, such as meat, fruit, or vegetables, that is not safely canned at home causes most cases of foodborne botulism.
  • Wound botulism develops when the bacteria get into a cut or open sore. This can cause an infection that produces the toxin.
  • Infant botulism affects children younger than 1 year old. Infant botulism is the most common type. The cause is not always known. Some experts believe it happens after an infant eats dirt, dust, or honey. The bacteria that cause botulism settle in the infant's stomach and begin to grow. The bacteria then begin to cause paralysis.

What are the signs and symptoms of botulism?

  • Foodborne botulism symptoms usually develop 18 to 36 hours after the toxin gets into your body.
    • Dry mouth, trouble swallowing or speaking
    • Facial weakness
    • Blurred or double vision
    • Drooping eyelids
    • Trouble breathing
    • Nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain or cramps
  • Wound botulism symptoms develop about 10 days after the toxin gets into your body.
    • Trouble swallowing or speaking
    • Facial weakness
    • Blurred or double vision
    • Drooping eyelids
    • Trouble breathing
    • Fever
    • Red, swollen wound area
  • Infant botulism symptoms develop within 18 to 36 hours after the toxin enters the infant's body.
    • Constipation
    • Floppy movements due to muscle weakness
    • Trouble controlling his or her head
    • Weak cry, irritability, tiredness
    • Drooling
    • Drooping eyelids
    • Trouble feeding or sucking

How is botulism diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms. Your provider may look for recent injuries or wounds. Tell your provider if you have had any muscle weakness. Your provider may ask about the foods you ate in the past 4 or 5 days. Tell your provider if you recently ate any home-canned food. You may need any of the following:

  • A sample of your bowel movement or vomit may show the toxin that causes botulism.
  • Neuro signs , or neuro checks show healthcare providers your brain function. They will check how your pupils react to light. They may check your memory and how easily you wake up. Your strength, balance, vision, and other brain functions may also be tested.
  • Blood tests may show the infection.
  • A CT or MRI may show infection or problems from the toxin. You may be given contrast liquid to help the area show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • An electromyography (EMG) test measures the electrical activity of your muscles at rest and with movement.

How is botulism treated?

You may need to stay in the hospital for days or weeks to treat botulism. You may need any of the following:

  • Antitoxin medicine stops the toxin from spreading and causing more damage. Antitoxin does not heal damage that has already been done.
  • Antibiotics help treat other infections that develop in addition to the botulism.
  • Surgery may be needed to clean out an infected wound or remove the source of the infection.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

How can I prevent botulism?

  • Prevent foodborne botulism:
    • Learn safe canning methods if you can food at home. Boil any food that has been canned or vacuum packaged at home. Boil it at 176°F (80°C) for 30 minutes or at 212°F (100°C) for 10 minutes.
    • Wash, clean, and sterilize all items used in canning.
    • Use pressure canners for low-acid foods such as meats, potatoes, or vegetables.
    • Refrigerate any canned or picked foods once they are opened. Refrigerate homemade oils.
  • Prevent wound botulism. Keep your wound clean. Ask how often you should clean and bandage your wound. Watch for signs of infection such as redness, swelling, and warmth.
  • Prevent infant botulism. Do not give honey to a baby younger than 1 year old.

What follow-up care will I need after botulism?

You may feel tired or short of breath for several years after your illness. You may need physical therapy to help regain your strength. Ask your healthcare provider for more information.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) or have someone call if:

  • You have shortness of breath.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have more trouble swallowing or speaking.

When should I call my doctor?

  • You have numbness or weakness in your head, arms, or legs.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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