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Botulism fact sheet

What is botulism?

How do you get botulism?

What are the signs and symptoms of botulism?

How do I get treated?

What do I do if I have botulism?

How do I reduce the risks of getting botulism?

Where can I find more information on botulism?


What is botulism?

Botulism is a rare but serious condition caused by toxins produced by Clostridium botulinum bacteria found in soil and sediments.

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How do you get botulism?

The bacteria can enter the body through cuts or from food that has not been cooked or preserved properly,
allowing the bacteria to grow and produce one of the most potent toxins known. Tiny amounts of the toxin are capable of causing paralysis.

The three forms of botulism are:

  • Food-borne
    This occurs as a result of eating food that is contaminated with the toxins. The symptoms are severe and usually develop after 12 – 36 hours. This form of botulism can be fatal and it is estimated that about 5 - 10% of adults who acquire food-borne botulism will die.
  • Intestinal
    This type occurs when spores from the bacteria are ingested and then multiply in the intestinal tract and produce toxins. Children under the age of 12 months are most susceptible but adults with gastrointestinal problems can also be at risk. In most adults, even if the spores are ingested, they do not make the person ill because the body’s natural defences stop the bacteria from multiplying and producing toxins.
  • Wound
    This form of botulism is rare and occurs when bacterial spores on soil or gravel get into an open wound and reproduce. Symptoms develop between four days to two weeks.

Clostridium botulinum bacteria produce spores that are found worldwide in soil and sediments of rivers and the sea. These spores find their way into animals, fish and agricultural products which may then become food for human consumption.

Food-borne botulism can occur when the bacteria contaminate food and produce toxins that are not inactivated by the cooking process. The contamination happens most often in foods with low acidity such as home-preserved fruits, vegetables, potato salad and minced garlic in oil. It is also associated with canned foods, meat, fish and soft cheeses. Botulism is not spread from person to person but the disease often occurs in people who have shared the same food.

Intestinal botulism is mainly caused by ingesting raw honey.

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What are the signs and symptoms of botulism?

Symptoms in adults may include:

    • blurred vision
    • difficulty in speaking, swallowing and breathing
    • nausea and vomiting
    • dry mouth
    • weakness, fatigue and ultimately paralysis

Symptoms in infants may include:

    • constipation
    • weak cry
    • loss of head control
    • loss of appetite
    • breathing difficulties
    • reduced movement of limbs and increased weakness

Death may result from paralysis of the breathing muscles.

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How do I get treated?

    • Patients with botulism are severely ill and require urgent hospitalisation.
    • Antitoxin against botulism should be administered as early as possible to lessen the severity of symptoms.

What do I do if I have botulism?

    • See a doctor or go to hospital as soon as possible.

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How do I reduce the risks of getting botulism?

    • Toxins that cause botulism can be inactivated by boiling foods for 10 minutes or longer.
    • Cook/ reheat foods evenly and thoroughly (to 75°C).
    • Perishable foods should be stored below 5°C.
    • When canning or preserving food at home pay attention to hygiene, pressure, temperature, refrigeration and storage.
    • When making home preserves bottle only acidic fruit such as apples, pears, stone fruits and berries. Tropical fruit and tomatoes are low in acidity and must have some acidity added before they are bottled.
    • Vegetables must be bottled in at least half vinegar, half water.
    • When making flavoured oils only use dried herbs and vegetables or soak fresh herbs and vegetables in vinegar before adding to the oil.
    • Wash any wounds with antibacterial soap.
    • Do not feed honey to babies less than 12 months old.

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Where can I find more information on botulism?

For further information contact your GP, a doctor of your choice or Health Direct (1800 022 222).

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Adobe PDFBotulism Factsheet
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Botulism is a rare but serious condition caused by toxins produced by clostridium botulinum bacteria found in soil and sediments. The bacteria can enter the body through cuts or from food that has not been cooked or preserved properly. The WA Department of Health Fact sheet has information on the symptoms, diagnosis and prevention of the disease.

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