Botulism is an illness caused by a toxin produced by Clostridium botulinum bacteria. The C. botulinum bacteria spores are naturally present in the environment, often living in garden soil. Although botulism is a serious condition, fortunately it is very rare.
How can you get botulism?
You can get botulism in two different ways:
- Through food – usually honey, home preserves, canned food, meat, seafood and soft cheeses.
- Through a wound – this is more common in people who work on the land or who use injecting drugs.
There is a type of botulism called infant botulism. In this situation, a child gets the Clostridium botulinum bacteria in their gut, and it produces the toxin from there. Honey sometimes causes this – children under 12 months of age should not be given honey.
You can’t catch botulism from someone else.
The main symptom of botulism is extreme weakness – weakness that is so severe it is hard to open your eyes, hard to speak and hard to have the strength to breathe. It is sometimes fatal.
Babies with botulism can’t tell you how they feel. But it makes it hard for them to cry, to move, to eat and to drink.
If you suspect that you or someone you know has botulism, see a doctor as soon as possible or go to your nearest emergency department.
If medical help is sought quickly, treatment can reduce the severity of the condition.
Botulism is very rare, but you can reduce the risk further by:
- not feeding honey to infants
- taking care when preserving food – the bacterial spores can survive at temperatures of 100 °C, so make sure food is well cooked and containers are thoroughly sterilised
- throwing away canned food that is past its use-by date, damaged or spoiled
- covering open wounds when gardening or in contact with soil.
Last reviewed: December 2015