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Clostridium botulinum is a type of bacteria often found in soil. Botulism is characterized as a rare paralytic disease caused by a nerve toxin produced by the pathogen. Although there are different types of botulism, food-borne botulism is caused by ingesting the botulism toxin. The rod-shaped organisms grow best in low-oxygen environments. The bacteria themselves form spores which allow for existence in a dormant state. The bacteria then flourish when they are once again exposed to hospitable growth conditions. This is why food-borne botulism is often associated with low acid content, home-canned foods, such as asparagus, green beans, beets and corn. Though extremely rare, outbreaks of botulism from more unusual sources such as chopped garlic in oil, chili peppers, tomatoes, carrot juice and home-canned or fermented fish do occur.
The classic symptoms of botulism can include double or blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness. Infants with botulism can appear lethargic, feed poorly, become constipated, cry weakly and exhibit poor muscle tone. These symptoms are indicative of the muscle paralysis caused by the bacterial toxin. If untreated, these symptoms may progress to include paralysis of the arms, legs, trunk and respiratory muscles. In food-borne botulism, symptoms generally begin 18 to 36 hours after ingestion of a contaminated product. In the United States, an average 145 cases are reported each year. Of these, only a small percentage are associated with the consumption of contaminated foods.
Though symptoms typically resolve within a few weeks, paralysis and respiratory difficulty associated with botulism can require intensive treatment. Good supportive care in a hospital is the mainstay of therapy for all forms of botulism. Given the scientific advancements in the treatment of botulism, only an extremely small percentage of botulism cases will result in death.
Notably, the botulinum toxin becomes unstable if exposed to high temperatures, and is destroyed when offending foods are heated to 176 degrees for ten minutes or longer.