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Clostridium botulinum

General characteristics

Clostridium botulinum is an anaerobic, Gram-positive, spore-forming rod that produces a potent neurotoxin. The spores are heat-resistant and can survive in foods that are incorrectly or minimally processed. Seven types (A, B, C, D, E, F and G) of botulism are recognized, based on the antigenic specificity of the toxin produced by each strain. Types A, B, E and F cause human botulism. Types C and D cause most cases of botulism in animals. Animals most commonly affected are wild fowl and poultry, cattle, horses and some species of fish. Although type G has been isolated from soil in Argentina, no outbreaks involving it have been recognized.


Foodborne botulism (as distinct from wound botulism and infant botulism) is a severe type of food poisoning caused by the ingestion of foods containing the potent neurotoxin formed during growth of the organism. The toxin is heat labile and can be destroyed if heated at 80°C for 10 minutes or longer. The incidence of the disease is low, but the disease is of considerable concern because of its high mortality rate if not treated immediately and properly. Most of the outbreaks that are reported annually are associated with inadequately processed, home-canned foods, but occasionally commercially produced foods have been involved in outbreaks. Sausages, meat products, canned vegetables and seafood products have been the most frequent vehicles for human botulism.

The organism and its spores are widely distributed in nature. They occur in both cultivated and forest soils, bottom sediments of streams, lakes, and coastal waters, and in the intestinal tracts of fish and mammals, and in the gills and viscera of crabs and other shellfish.

Disease symptoms

Four types of botulism are recognized: foodborne, infant, wound, and a form of botulism whose classification is as yet undetermined. Certain foods have been reported as sources of spores in cases of infant botulism and the undetermined category; wound botulism is not related to foods.

Foodborne botulism is the name of the disease (actually a foodborne intoxication) caused by the consumption of foods containing the neurotoxin produced by C. botulinum .

Infant botulism, first recognized in 1976, affects infants under 12 months of age. This type of botulism is caused by the ingestion of C. botulinum spores which colonize and produce toxin in the intestinal tract of infants (intestinal toxemia botulism). Of the various potential environmental sources such as soil, cistern water, dust and foods, honey is the one dietary reservoir of C. botulinum spores thus far definitively linked to infant botulism by both laboratory and epidemiologic studies. The number of confirmed infant botulism cases has increased significantly as a result of greater awareness by health officials since its recognition in 1976. It is now internationally recognized, with cases being reported in more countries.

Wound botulism is the rarest form of botulism. The illness results when C. botulinum by itself or with other microorganisms infects a wound and produces toxins which reach other parts of the body via the blood stream. Foods are not involved in this type of botulism.

Undetermined category of botulism involves adult cases in which a specific food or wound source cannot be identified. It has been suggested that some cases of botulism assigned to this category might result from intestinal colonization in adults, with in vivo production of toxin. Reports in the medical literature suggest the existence of a form of botulism similar to infant botulism, but occurring in adults. In these cases, the patients had surgical alterations of the gastrointestinal tract and/or antibiotic therapy. It is proposed that these procedures may have altered the normal gut flora and allowed C. botulinum to colonize the intestinal tract.

Infective dose -- a very small amount (a few nanograms) of toxin can cause illness. The toxin is one of the most potent toxins known in nature.

Onset of symptoms in foodborne botulism is usually 18 to 36 hours after ingestion of the food containing the toxin, although cases have varied from 4 hours to 8 days. Early signs of intoxication consist of marked lassitude, weakness and vertigo, usually followed by double vision and progressive difficulty in speaking and swallowing. Difficulty in breathing, weakness of other muscles, abdominal distention, and constipation may also be common symptoms.

Clinical symptoms of infant botulism consist of constipation that occurs after a period of normal development. This is followed by poor feeding, lethargy, weakness, pooled oral secretions, and wail or altered cry. Loss of head control is striking. Recommended treatment is primarily supportive care.

Antimicrobial therapy is not recommended.


Although botulism can be diagnosed by clinical symptoms alone, differentiation from other diseases may be difficult. The most direct and effective way to confirm the clinical diagnosis of botulism in the laboratory is to demonstrate the presence of toxin in the serum or faeces of the patient or in the food which the patient consumed. Currently, the most sensitive and widely used method for detecting toxin is the mouse neutralization test. This test takes 48 hours. Culturing of specimens takes 5-7 days.

Infant botulism is diagnosed by demonstrating botulinal toxins and the organism in the infants' stools.

Associated foods

The types of foods involved in botulism vary according to food preservation and eating habits in different regions. Any food that is conducive to outgrowth and toxin production, that when processed allows spore survival, and is not subsequently heated before consumption can be associated with botulism. Almost any type of food that is not very acidic (pH above 4.6) can support growth and toxin production by C. botulinum . Botulinal toxin has been demonstrated in a considerable variety of foods, such as canned corn, peppers, green beans, soups, beets, asparagus, mushrooms, ripe olives, spinach, tuna fish, chicken and chicken livers and liver pate, and luncheon meats, ham, sausage, stuffed eggplant, lobster, and smoked and salted fish.


Total prevention is not possible. All commercially canned and preserved foods are normally safe for consumption (all are sterilised or too acidic or otherwise preserved). Fresh produce is no hazard. The toxin is destroyed at 75-80 °C, so properly heated and cooked foods are safe.

Risk populations

All people are believed to be susceptible to the foodborne intoxication.


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