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How can botulism hurt me?

The word botulism describes a kind of poisoning. A strain of bacteria called Clostridium botulinum makes a protein called botulin. This protein causes botulism. Botulin invades excitatory nerve cells where those nerve cells meet muscle fibers. The botulin blocks the junction so no signals can get through. This results in paralysis and - in severe cases - it totally immobilizes and kills the patient.

Botulism bacteria are common but are killed by oxygen. Therefore, the bacteria form spores to protect them from oxygen. These spores activate in oxygen-free environments. The most common way to contract botulism is from improperly canned food. When a can is sealed, it creates an oxygen-free environment. In proper canning, the can is heated after sealing. This causes the spores to die. If the can is not heated properly, the spores activate in the sealed can and it becomes filled with toxin. Because botulin is a protein, heating the food after opening the can is enough to destroy the botulin. If the canned food is eaten cold, however, botulism occurs.

Babies can get botulism from honey. This happens in a different way. Bees naturally collect botulism spores while they collect nectar. The spores are mixed into the honey. Most people can eat the spores without difficulty. Adults have bacteria in their intestines and robust immune systems that eliminate the spores. Babies do not yet have these defenses. When a baby eats honey, therefore, the spores find themselves in the oxygen-free intestine. They come to life and produce the toxin while inside the baby.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.