Medical Definition of Botulism

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Botulism: An uncommon, but potentially very serious illness, a type of food poisoning, that produces paralysis of muscles via a nerve toxin called botulinum toxin ("botox") that is manufactured by bacteria named Clostridium botulinum.

There are various types of botulism, including:

  • Food-borne botulism -- from eating food that contains the botulinum toxin.
  • Wound botulism -- caused by the toxin produced in a wound infected with the bacteria Clostridium botulinum.
  • Infant intestinal botulism -- when an infant consumes the spores of the bacteria, the bacteria grow in the baby's intestines and release toxin.
  • Adult intestinal botulism -- due to infection with Clostridium botulinum in adults, typically following abdominal surgical procedures.

The symptoms of botulism can range from mild, including transient nausea and vomiting, to severe cases that progress to heart and lung failure and, sometimes, death. Food-borne botulism occurs typically in unrefrigerated or poorly refrigerated foods and foods without preservatives (especially uncooked or half-cooked meats). It can be prevented by careful use of refrigeration and preservative techniques, and the toxin can be destroyed with heat.

Clostridium botulin and botulinum toxin might, it is feared, be misused as agents of bioterrorism.

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Reviewed on 12/27/2018

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