Diseases Home > Botulism

Botulism is a serious illness that is caused by one of the most poisonous substances known to exist -- botulinum toxin. The three main types of this illness are foodborne, wound, and infant. All forms can be fatal and are considered medical emergencies.

What Is Botulism?

Botulism is a rare but serious illness that is caused by toxins (poisons) produced by specific bacteria. In severe cases, botulism can lead to paralysis or death.
 

What Causes It?

The cause of botulism is a nerve toxin (botulinum toxin) that is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.
 
Clostridium botulinum is the name of a group of bacteria commonly found in soil and marine sediments worldwide; their spores are often found on the surfaces of fruits and vegetables and in seafood. These rod-shaped organisms grow best in low-oxygen conditions. The bacteria form spores that allow them to survive in a dormant state until exposed to conditions that can support their growth.
 
The bacteria and spores themselves are harmless; the dangerous substance is the toxin produced by the bacteria when they grow.
 
(Click Causes of Botulism for more information about the causes of this infection.)
 

What Are Botulinum Toxins?

Botulism bacteria produce seven types of botulinum toxin, designated by the letters A through G; only types A, B, E, and F cause botulism in humans. Botulinum toxin is one of the most poisonous substances known to exist.
 
Botulinum toxins affect people of all ages by preventing certain nerves from functioning, resulting in muscle paralysis. Because of this action, these toxins are designated "neurotoxins."
 
Botulinum toxins, however, do have beneficial uses. Doctors use them to treat certain human diseases caused by muscle problems, such as strabismus (crossed eyes). It is also used to eliminate facial wrinkles.
  
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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