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Botulism is an emergency and needs treatment in hospital. If you think you have botulism call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance..

Key facts

  • Botulism is a rare, potentially fatal illness.
  • It causes paralysis and difficulty with vision, swallowing and breathing.
  • It can spread through food that has not been prepared or stored safely.
  • It is an emergency and needs treatment in hospital.
  • Don’t give honey to babies under 12 months, as this can put them at risk of botulism.

What is botulism?

Botulism is a serious illness that causes paralysis (meaning that you are unable to move your muscles). It is caused by a toxin (poison) produced by the bacteria clostridium botulinum. The toxin can severely damage your nerves, and can cause death.

Bacteria spores (cells) are present in soil, dust, and some foods. The toxin is sometimes found in food that has not been prepared or stored safely.

Botulism is very rare. It usually affects one person a year in Australia.

How is botulism spread?

There are several types of botulism, which are spread in different ways. You can’t catch botulism from someone else.

Foodborne botulism

This is caused by eating food that contains the toxin. A food can become contaminated if bacteria in it produce the toxin, but the food is not heated enough to destroy it. High risk foods include:

  • fermented, salted or smoked fish or meat
  • home preserved fruit, vegetables or meat
  • canned foods

Wound botulism

This can happen if spores of bacteria enter a wound and produce the toxin there. The spores usually come from soil or gravel. It can also affect people who inject drugs.

Infant botulism

This can happen if a child swallows food (such as honey) or soil containing spores of bacteria. The spores grow in the child’s gut and produce the toxin there. It affects babies under 12 months old.

Intestinal botulism

This is like infant botulism, but occurs in older children and adults. It is rare because after one year of age your gut has natural defence mechanisms. You might be at risk if:

  • you have a weakened immune system
  • you are taking antibiotics
  • you have a bowel disease that affects the bacteria in your gut

What are the symptoms of botulism?

Botulism causes paralysis that moves down your body:

  • It begins with weakness and dizziness.
  • It then causes blurred vision, dry mouth and trouble swallowing and speaking.
  • Next, your muscles become paralysed, moving down your arms and then legs.
  • Finally, it can paralyse your breathing muscles.

Other symptoms may include:

Symptoms in babies can include:

  • constipation
  • weak cry
  • weak suck and poor feeding
  • floppy muscles and paralysis
  • poor head control
  • choking and trouble breathing

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What treatment will I need for botulism?

If you may have botulism, go to your nearest emergency department. You will need to be admitted to hospital. If you are treated early, your symptoms may be less severe.

Botulism is an emergency and needs treatment in hospital. If you think you have botulism call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Treatment may include:

  • botulinum immunoglobulin or antitoxin — these are medicines which can fight the toxin
  • a ventilator to help with breathing
  • intravenous fluids if you are unable to swallow
  • medicines to make you vomit
  • surgery for infected wounds

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How can I prevent botulism?

There are some important food and hygiene rules to follow to help prevent botulism:

  • Don’t feed honey to babies under 12 months, and be careful when you prepare and store food for babies.
  • Take care when preserving food: follow instructions, use correct equipment and make sure food is properly cooked and containers are sterilised. Find out more about safe home canning.
  • Throw away food that is expired, spoiled, foamy or smells bad, and don’t taste food from cans and bottles that are damaged, dented or swollen.
  • Store cold food below 5°C and keep hot food above 60°C. Foods should be cooked and reheated to an internal temperature of at least 75°C.
  • Clean wounds with soap and water.
  • Avoid injecting drugs. When injecting medicines for a diagnosed health condition follow instructions, and use correct equipment.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2022

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