What is Clostridium Botulinum?

Clostridium Botulinum

For those of us born before the technological age, our childhoods would probably have involved playing outside for much of the time, making our own entertainment.  For many, playing in the mud and dirt was a great pastime.  You might be one of those that made mud pies and got absolutely filthy, to the despair of your parents.  Some children actually proceeded to tuck into said mud pies but have turned out just fine.  Little did we know, however, that something pretty sinister was lurking in the very same soil from which we were making our mud pies.

Sources, Causes and Symptoms

Clostridium botulinum is bacteria which is present in untreated water, soil and dust all over the world and can also be found on a number of food items, for example, anything which has been grown in soil may have had contact with the bacteria.  The bacteria in its natural state is not harmful but, as an ‘obligate anaerobe’, if it is deprived of oxygen, its spores start to produce toxins which can, in very rare cases, be fatal.  It is no exaggeration to say that it is probably the most dangerous of food borne illnesses that can be contracted.  The toxins attack the nervous system, disabling the neurotransmitters which carry instructions from the brain to our muscles, thus causing paralysis.  Symptoms include nausea, dizziness, vomiting, double vision, drooping eyelids and paralysis amongst others.  It can be treated with antitoxins which prevent the toxins from travelling round the body so an immediate visit to the doctor or hospital is absolutely imperative.

Foodborne botulism is generally contracted from canned foods which have not been processed correctly at source.  In food in canned form, the bacteria are deprived of oxygen and toxins develop so that, when consumed, the illness strikes.  In the UK, hygiene regulations are very strict so food being processed incorrectly is a real rarity.  Canned food is subject to intense heating and sterilisation processes which should eradicate any risk.

Clostridium Botulinum in Children

Infant botulism is the most frequent form of the illness and occurs mostly in babies under the age of 6 months, although it tends to occur through botulinum spores releasing the toxins once ingested, rather than pre-developed toxins in foods.  At this age, their bodies have not yet developed to deal with botulinum in bacteria form, as adults’ immune systems have.  For adults, it is the pre-developed toxins that pose the risk.

Controls

It should be noted that cases of botulism are very scarce but there are measures you can take to ensure avoiding contact with these potentially deadly toxins.  Never eat food from a can which is bulging or leaking, or which shoots out unnaturally when being opened, as it could be contaminated.  Heat food which comes from cans properly.  The World Health Organisation states that, ‘the toxin produced by bacteria growing out of the spores under anaerobic conditions is destroyed by boiling (for example, at internal temperature greater than 85 °C for 5 minutes or longer)’.  Never give honey to children under 1 year old as this is a common cause of infant botulism.  If you are going to can food at home, make sure you find out how to do it properly so that you can follow the strictest hygiene procedures.  Always put leftover and cooked food in the refrigerator, as low temperatures help to prevent the formation of toxins.  Decant any leftovers from cans into other containers and refrigerate.  Simple measures which are easy to follow and which could make all the difference.

Botox

On a final note, it’s not all bad news.  The botulinum bacteria is the main ingredient used in botox, where the skin is effectively ‘paralysed’ to reduce the appearance of wrinkles so, for those who seek the elixir of youth, the botulinum bacteria is one of the finds of the modern age!