Botulism is a type of poisoning caused by ingestion of the botulism toxin. The toxin is produced by a type of anaerobic bacteria. It is commonly found in canned food that was not heated to an appropriately high temperature. It is a very rare type of food poisoning. It can also be caused when the bacteria grows inside the human body. It presents as paralysis which starts in the face and moves down towards the limbs. It often kills by paralyzing the muscles used for breathing.
Unlike other types of food poisoning, such as salmonella, it is not the actual bacteria that cause the disease. Instead, the bacteria multiply in the oxygen absent environment of a canned food and produce the toxin as a by-product.
The toxin itself is very potent and hardy. Even a small amount can be fatal, and at one time it was develoIped as a biological weapon. In addition, the toxin, once formed, is resistant to heat (even short exposure to boiling temperatures, although boiling for a few minutes will break it down) and antiseptics that would destroy the bacteria that made the toxin.
The most common source of exposure to the toxin is home canned food, particularly those with a low acid content. It is rarely found in commercially processed food.
Luckily, food tainted with botulism is usually obviously spoiled. However, the toxin still must be properly disposed of. For example, it can be spread easily if merely flushed away. A more proper method of disposal is to burn the affected food.
Botulism toxin does have some medical uses. Because the toxin works by paralyzing muscles, it can be used as a paralytic. It is commonly used as such in plastic surgery, where it can often relax facial muscles for long periods of time in order to reduce wrinkling of the skin.
Botulism is a medical emergency and must be treated in a hospital setting. The symptoms will resolve with time and usually treatment focusses on support, particularly breathing support. In the early stages, the patient may be given an antitoxin which will block the action of the toxin in the bloodstream. Physicians will usually do an environmental scan to prevent further accidental poisoning.