Printable version

Botulism: Facts and Details

What is botulism?

Botulism is a muscle-paralyzing disease caused by a toxin made by a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum. There are three main types of botulism, all of which can be considered fatal and require immediate medical attention:

What causes botulism? 

What are the symptoms of botulism?

The classic symptoms of botulism include double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth and muscle weakness. Infants with botulism appear lethargic, feed poorly, are constipated, and have a weak cry and poor muscle tone. The symptoms of botulism make hospitalization necessary. If left untreated, the symptoms may progress to cause paralysis of the arms, legs, torso, and respiratory muscles. Symptoms usually appear within 12 to 36 hours (within a range of six hours to ten days) after exposure.  

How is botulism treated?

Foodborne and wound botulism can be treated with an antitoxin that blocks the action of toxin circulating in the blood. This can prevent the symptoms from getting worse, but recovery still takes many weeks. Wounds should be treated, usually surgically, to remove the source of the toxin-producing bacteria. Currently, antitoxin is not routinely given for the treatment of infant botulism. The respiratory failure and paralysis that occur with severe botulism may require the person to be on a breathing machine for weeks, with medical and nursing care. After several weeks, the paralysis slowly improves.

Can botulism be used for bioterrorism?

Cases of botulism are usually associated with consumption of canned foods. However, botulism’s extraordinary potency has made it one of the most widely researched bioweapons by terrorists. Inhalational botulism does not occur naturally, but would be the most likely form seen in a large-scale bioterrorist attack via an aerosol. release of botulinum toxin.

For More Information:
Contact the Sedgwick County Health Department Epidemiology Office at