Botulism is a very rare condition caused by a poison produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. This germ can commonly be found in spore form in the soil.

Inhaling or ingesting the toxin produced by the organism causes the condition, and symptoms include blurred vision and a difficulty in swallowing and speaking, as the toxin affects the nerves. Sometimes diarrhoea and vomiting are present. The disease can go on to cause paralysis and recovery can take months. Death occurs in 5-10% of cases.

Clostridium botulinum is an organism which grows in the absence of oxygen - an anaerobic bacterium. This explains why botulism in adults tends to be caused by eating food stored an airtight environment e.g. tins and jars. Particularly vulnerable are foods which have been home-preserved in oil. The spores of the bacterium will have somehow been introduced into that environment and will then germinate and reproduce. The toxin is destroyed by normal cooking processes.

Infant botulism is a very rare form of the disease, but occurs when a baby somehow takes in spores of the germ which then reproduce in the gut and produce the toxins. Adults and older children have more developed natural defences that would prevent this happening.

Wound botulism occurs when the spores manage to get into a deep, open wound and they then reproduce and produce toxin in an environment where there is no oxygen. It has been known to occur in drug users who inject.

Symptoms usually develop between 12-36 hours after exposure to the toxin.

Treatment is with antitoxin, and supportive measures, e.g. help with ventilation if breathing is affected. A vaccine is available but there are concerns over its safety and effectiveness.

Further information

This article published on
01 August 2005

Next review date 8/1/2013


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