Botulism is a type of paralytic illness which is often caused through consumption of contaminated food. The illness can be fatal if left untreated, and at very least it can cause serious symptoms which require weeks or months of recovery. Fortunately, botulism is relatively rare; in the United States, for example, around 100 cases of the illness are reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention every year.
Humans have been struggling with botulism for centuries, as writings from Ancient Greece and Rome suggest. In the 1700s, German physicians finally linked the problem with bad food, and by 1824, the illness had been named “botulism” after the Latin word botulus for “sausage.” Badly cured sausages were among the leading causes of botulism, as the name for the disease reflects. By 1895, scientists had isolated the bacteria which are responsible for botulism, a vital step in preventing and controlling the disease.
The illness is caused by the botulinum toxin, which is secreted by bacteria in the Clostridium genus. The toxin interferes with the central nervous system, causing distorted vision, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, difficulty breathing, muscle weakness, and ultimate paralysis. The illness can only be treated with an antitoxin, which will prevent the botulinum from binding to the cells of the patient. Problems such as systemic infection related to botulism may be treated with antibiotics, while in patients with breathing difficulties, a ventilator may be used until the patient recovers.
The ideal place for the toxin to proliferate is a low acid, anaerobic environment like that found in canned foods. If the environment becomes hostile to the bacteria, they can go dormant until favorable conditions are present again. The most common type of botulism is infant botulism, an infection in young children who are especially susceptible to botulinum spores in the air and soil. Adults can also get botulism from contaminated food, especially home-canned goods, and a very small number of cases are caused by bacterial colonization of flesh wounds.
This form of food poisoning is not entirely preventable, but there are a few steps which can reduce the risk of botulism. Foods should always be handled and preserved in accordance with food safety guidelines, and people should discard food which appears to be suspect. In the case of canned foods and preserves, if the container is dented or bulging, the food should be thrown away. Rare cases of botulism have been caused by things like herbed olive oils, preserved fish, and poorly handled baked potatoes, so consumers should handle these foods with care. Infants should not be given honey, as it has been known to contain botulinum spores.