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Botulism; definition, symptoms, causes, treatment, and prognosis.

Updated on August 1, 2013

The Botulism Bacteria: clostridium botulinum

This photo is taken by a transmission electron micrograph and shows an up-close photo of the clostridium botulinum bacteria.
This photo is taken by a transmission electron micrograph and shows an up-close photo of the clostridium botulinum bacteria. | Source

Overview/Definition

Although botulism is extremely rare in today’s society, there are several different forms of this illness, and all can be fatal if left untreated. Botulism refers to ingesting a poison or toxin made by bacteria known as clostridium botulinum. People can develop botulism from eating bacteria contaminated foods, or having wounds infected with the bacteria; they may also develop this illness via heroin use, and some infants have contracted the illness by ingesting contaminated honey before their body developed necessary immunities against the toxin. Ironically, this bacterium occurs naturally in the soil, yet, the chances of contracting botulism are still very slim.

Symptoms

People infected with the bacteria (clostridium botulinum) may experience visual distortions (such as blurred or double vision), sagging eyelids, dilated pupils, impaired speech, impaired ability to swallow (either liquids or solids), an abnormally dry mouth, paralysis, and possible muscle weakness. One of the most commonly associated characteristics with botulism is paralysis, which usually affects a person’s face first and then spreads throughout their extremities.

The Botulinum Toxin

The Botulinum Toxin is produced by the bacteria "clostridium botulinum."
The Botulinum Toxin is produced by the bacteria "clostridium botulinum." | Source

Causes

Botulism is primarily caused by direct exposure to the bacteria clostridium botulinum, which produces a toxic protein during anaerobic conditions. In other words, the bacterium itself does not require oxygen in order to live and produce its form of toxin. However, the bacterium does require favorable environmental conditions, such as fairly warm temperatures, in order to successfully replicate toxins.

The bacterium is often able to target the human body by breeding along the gastrointestinal tract, especially near the digestive tract. Common ways to come into contact with the bacteria include consuming foods contaminated by the bacteria, infecting open, unaddressed wounds with the bacteria, heroin use, or exposure to contaminated honey as an infant. People also increase their risk of contracting this illness by consuming fish and canned foods stored at very high temperatures. This illness is not airborne and cannot be passed along from person to person.

Treatment

Usually, the treatment of this illness involves the intake of antitoxins, serious medical attention, or (in the instance of wounds infected by the bacteria) surgery. However, the best form of treatment for botulism is prevention. There are multiple ways to prevent the occurrence of this illness, such as practicing careful and sanitary procedures when self-canning foods, avoiding infant contact with honey (especially raw forms of honey), and properly addressing serious wounds or injuries at the time of their occurrence.

Prognosis

Nearly 60% of all botulism cases are extremely fatal, if the illness is ignored and left untreated. In the United States alone, the mortality rate for contracting botulism is about 7.5%. However, the elderly are at an increased risk of contracting the illness, as immunity is lowered with age; the mortality rate amongst people over the age of 60 is nearly 30%. Despite all, the food industry has dramatically progressed at botulism prevention, and the medical field has dramatically improved towards treatment of the illness. If you suspect that you may have contracted botulism, it is extremely imperative that you seek medical attention immediately. Seeking medical attention is a must in order to recover from this serious and highly fatal illness.

Botulism Trivia!

What is the most common breeding ground of clostridium botulinum?

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