• Overview


Botulism is a very serious infection that is caused by toxins produced by the Clostridium botulinum bacteria 

How common is botulism?

Botulism is a rare condition in the UK.

Between 1980 and 2010 there were 33 recorded cases of food-borne botulism in England and Wales. Twenty-six of these were linked to a single outbreak in 1989 that was caused by contaminated hazelnut yoghurt.

Since 1978, there have been 13 cases of infant botulism. None resulted in death.

The number of wound botulism cases has risen sharply in England and Wales over the past 10 years, with 144 cases between 2000 and 2010. This is thought to be due to an increase in people injecting heroin directly into their muscles, a practice often referred to as "skin-popping".

Help with drugs

If you have a drug problem, there's a lot of support and help available. Here's where to find it

Botulism is a rare but potentially fatal infection caused by toxins produced by Clostridium botulinum bacteria.

The toxins produced by C. botulinum are the most powerful naturally occurring toxins known to science. They attack the nervous system (nerves, brain and spinal cord) and cause paralysis (muscle weakness).

Left untreated, the paralysis will spread to the lungs, causing breathing failure followed by death.

The initial symptoms of botulism include nausea (feeling sick), vomiting and diarrhoea often followed by constipation.

It usually takes 12 to 36 hours after eating contaminated food for more serious neurological symptoms (symptoms affecting the nervous system) to begin. These include double vision, droopy eyelids and slurred speech.

Botulism is a serious condition requiring immediate medical attention. Dial 999 to request an ambulance if you, or someone you know, have the symptoms of botulism.

Read more about the symptoms of botulism.

What causes botulism?

Botulism is caused by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, found in soil, dust and agricultural products such as honey, beans and corn.

The actual bacteria are not harmful, but if they enter your body they can produce highly poisonous toxins (poisons).

There are three main types of botulism:

  • food-borne botulism: can occur when food becomes contaminated with infected soil; if the food is not properly canned, preserved or cooked, bacteria can start to produce toxins
  • wound botulism: can occur when a wound becomes infected with the C. botulinum bacteria; this can be caused by injecting or sniffing drugs contaminated with the bacteria
  • infant botulism: occurs when a baby ingests spores of the C. botulinum bacteria; the spores travel to the intestine where they begin to produce toxins

Read more about the causes of botulism.

Treating botulism

Botulism is treated in hospital, although the way in which it's treated depends on the type of botulism.

Antitoxins are very effective in treating botulism, although a full recovery may take several months.

Botulism needs prompt treatment as it's life-threatening. Around 10% of people with botulism die from it.

Read more about how botulism is treated.

Preventing botulism

Due to high standards of food hygiene in the UK, the chances of getting food-borne botulism from food bought in this country are virtually nil.

There is a slightly higher risk if you produce your own food, particularly if this involves canning. However, following food hygiene procedures and canning recommendations will reduce any risk.

Heroin users should avoid injecting heroin into their muscles. Injecting heroin into a vein or smoking it are safer ways of taking the drug, although not using heroin at all is by far the best course of action. Read more about getting help to stop using heroin.

In most cases of infant botulism, the specific cause has never been identified. Therefore, it may not always be possible to prevent it.

However, avoid giving honey or corn syrup to babies under the age of 12 months because they have been known to contain bacterial spores.

Page last reviewed: 17/05/2012

Next review due: 17/05/2014


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