Food Poisoning:

Clostridium botulinum - Botulism

Botulism is a rare but serious illness caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. The toxin, even a small quantity (as little as one microgram), is extremely dangerous and can cause paralysis and death in humans. It works by inhibiting nerve function, thereby preventing the use of muscles; recovery, if possible, is a long an arduous process.

There are three primary types of botulism: foodborne, wound, and infant. While all forms are potentially fatal, foodborne botulism is particularly problematic for heath officials because many can be affected by a single contaminated food source. The most common source of foodborne botulism is home-canned products, though commercially canned products can be contaminated, as in the 2007 outbreak originating with the Castleberry Food Company.

The most common botulism symptoms, which typically occur within a day of exposure, include blurred or double vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness. A physician may further find that the gag reflex and knee-jerk reaction are decreased or eliminated entirely. It is possible for symptoms to occur within six hours of exposure or to remain unseen for ten days.

Diagnosis, particularly in isolated cases, is not a simple process. Because symptoms are similar to those of numerous other ailments, including strokes and other types of paralysis, special tests are often needed. These include brain scans, spinal fluid examinations, EMG tests, and tensilon tests. If, however, it is suspected that botulism is the source of the symptoms, a mouse inoculation test can confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment options depend upon the stage in which the illness is diagnosed. Early diagnosis can be treated with an antitoxin that counteracts the effects of the toxin. The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) distributes an antitoxin that is effective against three types of botulism at its quarantine stations. It may be possible to acquire an antitoxin that counters seven types of botulism from FEMA or the United States Army. Furthermore, doctors may induce vomiting or prescribe enemas in order to cleanse the stomach of any remaining contaminated food. Later stages of the illness, marked by respiratory failure and paralysis, require intensive medical care as well as the use of a ventilator. Recovery is slow, often lasting weeks, as the nerves are regenerated. Effects can last for years, including tiredness and shortness of breath. Long term therapy can help counteract these.

Prevention mostly involves careful handling of home-canned goods. Proper and hygienic procedures should be followed in the canning and preserving of food. Furthermore, it would be prudent to boil home-canned foods for ten minutes before eating them. Other causes of the illness can be avoided by refrigerating oils that are infused with garlic or herbs, immediately serving or refrigerating potatoes that have been baked in aluminum foil, and immediately discarding any preserved foods that appear or smell abnormal. A vaccine is currently being developed.

Of note, botulism is considered a potential biological weapon, however, it is not conducive to use in chemical warfare. Also, botulism is present in Botox and other cosmetic treatments. It was approved by the FDA in 2002 and potential side-effects are listed on the product.

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