Botulism is an illness caused by botulinum toxin, which is produced by clostridium botulinum, a type of bacteria. Let us look at ways to prevent this serious, but rare disease.
The first case of botulism was recorded in the 18th century, and it was linked to consumption of sausage, from where it derives its name (botulus is Latin for sausage). There are mainly three kinds of botulism namely, infant, food-borne, and wound botulism. Infant botulism is generally caused when babies accidentally ingest soil that has been infected with clostridium botulinum, or consume honey, a food item in which this bacteria thrives.
Food-borne botulism (also called food poisoning) is caused due to consumption of canned foods which have not been canned properly or which have very less acid content. Wound botulism is caused when the bacteria infects a wound on a person’s body and is more prevalent among drug addicts who use heroin and cocaine, which may contain traces of the bacteria. The bacteria produce spores which, on entering a person’s body, continue to grow and produce neurotoxins, which in turn affects the functioning of the nervous system, and in severe cases results in paralysis .
The most common symptoms in adults are, weakness in facial muscles, drooping eyelids, blurred vision, and intense difficulty in breathing and swallowing. In infants, muscle weakness characterized by flaccid muscles, irritability, drooping muscles, exhaustion and difficulty in breathing and feeding are the most common symptoms. It is regarded as a medical emergency since the disease can prove fatal, and individuals are promptly hospitalized for further treatment. Let us see the steps we can take to prevent the outbreak of this life-threatening disease.
Preventing Food-borne Botulism
- Home-canned foods such as corn, beans, beets, carrots, mushrooms, tomatoes, chili peppers, and asparagus are the main source of clostridium botulinum, and consumption of such foods can cause botulism. Even baked potatoes, if not stored in the refrigerator or consumed immediately, can harbor this nasty bacteria.
- If you preserve foods such as garlic and herbs in oil, refrigerate them to prevent the growth of the bacteria. An alternative method is to use acid to preserve such oil-infused foods to minimize the risk of the bacteria growing within it.
- If you can foods at home, wash them thoroughly before you begin cooking to get rid of all dirt. Use fresh, tender vegetables and fruits for the canning process. Ensure that you cook them between 180 and 250 °F for half an hour before you can them. Baked potatoes must be wrapped in a clean aluminum foil, and refrigerated. To cut down on the risk, boil any home-canned food for at least ten minutes before eating it since high temperature can destroy the neurotoxin.
- Use the correct canning techniques – using pressure canners instead of the regular pressure cooker and storing the canned food in Mason jars greatly reduces the chances of food getting infected with the botulinum toxin.
- If a can is bulging at the top, looks puffy from any side, or emits a nasty odor, discard it. Do not even attempt to taste the food.
- People who consume bacon should cook it well. The quantity of salt, the main ingredient in bacon preservation, has been reduced, and this has been cited as the main reason for the growth of clostridium botulinum in bacon.
- Proper disposal of suspected food items is also of utmost importance in the wake of a botulism outbreak. If you have accidentally opened a canned food item that has been recalled by the Food and Drug Administration, do not eat it. Place the can in two plastic bags, tape the bags well, and dispose them off in non-recyclable trash cans outside your house, away from the reach of other people and animals. Use gloves while handling the food and the can. In case of a spillage, scrub the area with bleach and then rinse well with soap and water. Throw away all food items, gloves, and other containers that have come in contact with the infected food.
Preventing Infant Botulism
- Honey is said to be a carrier for the spores of clostridium botulinum, and if consumed by babies less than a year old, is a major source of infant botulism. As a rule, infants should not be given honey, or any food containing honey.
Preventing Wound Botulism
- Avoid abusing street drugs. Injecting street drugs such as heroin through contaminated and unsterilized needles is the primary cause. Cocaine can also contain spores of the deadly bacteria, hence wound botulism can also be caused by inhaling this harmful drug.
For individuals affected with this deadly disease, symptoms start appearing anytime between 24 hours to 10 days. If detected early, food-borne botulism can be treated by inducing vomiting, and wound botulism by surgically cutting the infected tissue. Patients are administered an antitoxin that keeps the neurotoxin produced by the bacteria from harming the central nervous system. But babies are not given this antitoxin; instead they are treated with the drug Botulism Immune Globulin Intravenous-Human. Individuals diagnosed with botulism should be given prompt medical attention with hospitalization to reduce the chances of paralysis, and in very severe cases, death.
We can take care to prevent the spread of botulism by adhering to hygienic canning methods at home. Store all preserved foods in the refrigerator, especially if preserved without acid. Seek quick medical care in case of any symptoms to avoid further complications.