Expert Health Articles

Foodborne Botulism

Colleen AbramsColleen Abrams, MT(ASCP)

Infection Preventionist

Summer brings many fun gatherings – graduations, weddings, parties and barbecues.  Food safety is important for all these gatherings, and typically focuses on food preparation in the home.  It is important to follow food safety instructions in the kitchen, especially when grilling and home-canning.  Botulism has no smell or taste, so it is difficult to detect, but can be deadly.  Therefore, it is important to learn how to prevent this foodborne illness.

What is botulism?

Botulism is a serious illness caused by a toxin that stops the body’s control of muscle movement, including the muscles that help you breathe.  The toxin is made when the botulism bacteria creates toxic spores.  This occurs only under certain conditions, typically from improperly home-canned, preserved or fermented foods. There are three different types of botulism: foodborne botulism, infant botulism and wound botulism

What are the symptoms of botulism?

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), “symptoms of botulism usually start with weakness of the muscles that control the eyes, face, mouth and throat.  This may then spread to the neck, arms, torso and legs.  Botulism toxins can weaken the muscles involved in breathing, which can lead to difficulty breathing and even death.”

Additional symptoms of botulism are:

  • Double vision
  • Blurred vision
  • Droopy eyelids
  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Dry mouth
  • Muscle weakness

If you or someone you know has symptoms of botulism, see your doctor or go to the emergency room immediately!

How is botulism prevented?

When eating out, reduce your risk of foodborne illnesses by avoiding foods that sit out in conditions other than proper temperatures.  Choose places that look clean. Be sure to properly handle leftovers as well.

Prevent foodborne botulism by following safe home canning instructions, performing hand hygiene and properly washing, cleaning and sterilizing canning materials.

Infant botulism usually cannot be prevented easily as the spores occur naturally in soil and dust.  The CDC recommends not feeding honey to infants younger than 12 months, as honey can contain these spores.

You can prevent wound botulism by keeping your wounds clean and performing hand hygiene before and after touching the wound.

Following the tips above can help protect us while we celebrate together this summer!