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Botulism Mechanism

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Botulism is a dangerous illness caused by infection with the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. The bacteria releases toxins that attack the central nervous system and eventually lead to death if the condition is not treated. Botulism can be prevented by adopting several measures and examples of these are given below.

  • In commercial canning, foods may be heat treated to destroy C. botulinum spores and reduce the risk of food-borne botulism.
  • Other food preservation methods include moisture removal, acidification and treating food with salt or other compounds known to inhibit growth of the bacteria. These techniques are used to process packed and canned foods and reduce the risk of food-borne botulism.
  • Adequate food refrigeration can prevent the growth of botulism group I strains, although some group II strains can grow at 3-4°C (37-39°F).
  • Foods that smell or taste “off” or are past their expiry date should not be consumed. However, it is important to remember that C. botulinum can grow without affecting the taste, smell or appearance of food.
  • Boiling food before it is served and eaten can destroy any pre-formed toxins. Potatoes which have been baked while wrapped in aluminium foil should be kept hot until they are served or refrigerated.
  • Babies below 1 year of age should not be given honey or corn syrup as these foods have been reported to contain the C.botulinum spores.
  • The botulism toxins can be transmitted from animals and the meat or milk from affected animals should not be consumed.
  • Laboratory staff handling C. botulinum must adhere to BSL-2 conditions at the very minimum as well as following BSL-3 precautions for certain procedures.
  • Investigational vaccines may be available to people who have a high risk of exposure to botulism such as laboratory workers or people who handle animals.
  • Although no cases of person-to-person transmission have been reported, people should still avoid exposure to bodily fluids or feces that may be infected with the botulinum toxin. Anyone who is exposed should watch carefully for the development of any symptoms.

Reviewed by , BSc

Further Reading

Last Updated: Aug 17, 2014

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