Skip all navigation Skip to page navigation

DHHS Home | A-Z Site Map | Divisions | About Us | Contacts

NC Department of Health and Human Services
NC Division of Public Health
N.C. Public Health Home
 
 

Diseases & Topics

Botulism

Botulism is a rare but serious paralytic illness caused by a nerve toxin produced by a group of bacteria, Clostridium, that normally live in soil. These bacteria cause several main kinds of botulism in humans, especially foodborne botulism, wound botulism and infant botulism. Another type, inhalational botulism, is a man-made form of disease that results from inhaling aerosolized botulinum toxin, as in a bioterrorism attack.

All forms of botulism can be fatal and are considered medical emergencies. Food-borne botulism is also a public health emergency, because many people can be poisoned by eating a contaminated food. Outbreaks of food-borne botulism occur most years in the United States and are usually caused by home-canned foods.

The symptoms of botulism include double or blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth and muscle weakness. An infant with botulism may appear lethargic, feed poorly, be constipated, and have a weak cry and poor muscle tone; the baby may appear "floppy," like a rag doll, unable to independently move his or her arms and legs or to be able to hold her or his head up. If untreated, paralysis of the respiratory muscles, arms, legs and trunk can occur. Prompt medical care is essential.

Many cases of botulism are preventable. Foodborne botulism can be prevented through proper preparation, cooking and handling of foods and through safe home-canning practices. Wound botulism can be prevented by promptly seeking medical care for infected wounds and by not using injectable street drugs. Honey can contain the bacteria that causes infant botulism, so children under 12 months old should not be fed honey (honey is safe for most people over one year of age).

Babies may, however, get infant botulism from the environment, because the bacteria that causes this disease is in soil and dust, even inside homes and even after cleaning.

For Additional Information

  • CDC: Botulism fact sheet External link
  • FDA: Bad Bug Book External link - Primarily technical, this handbook also provides consumer-focused "snapshots" with basic information about the major known bacteria, viruses, parasites and natural toxins that cause foodborne illness and how to avoid getting sick.