What is Infant Botulism? (with pictures)

Nat Robinson
Nat Robinson
Honey may contain botulinum spores, so it should not be given to infants.
Honey may contain botulinum spores, so it should not be given to infants.

Infant botulism is a life-threatening infant disease. It is caused by the growth of a poisonous bacteria, known as clostridium botulism, in the gastrointestinal tract of babies. There are different types of botulism. Other than infant botulism, there is also wound botulism, which occurs if the bacteria gets into an open wound and spreads. Another type is known as food-borne botulism, which is found most often in canned foods.

A baby with infant botulism may refuse to eat or nurse.
A baby with infant botulism may refuse to eat or nurse.

This is a somewhat rare, but nonetheless, toxic condition in every form. Of the many types of this bacterial disease, infant botulism can be the most problematic, because babies have a weak immune system. Generally, the source of this disease, clostridium botulism, is found in honey, corn syrup and soil. Often, babies with botulism have digested products containing honey or corn syrup. Additionally, they may have been exposed to soil with elements of clostridium botulism.

Infant botulism is a life-threatening infant disease.
Infant botulism is a life-threatening infant disease.

Constipation is generally one of the first symptoms of infant botulism. Many babies will appear sluggish and lack a normal level of energy. Infants may show signs of weakness, which can include weak cries. A loss of appetite may be apparent, as the baby may refuse to eat or nurse. Difficulty breathing, the inability to support the head and paralysis are some of the most severe symptoms of this condition.

Weak crying may be a symptom of infant botulism.
Weak crying may be a symptom of infant botulism.

Babies exhibiting any of these symptoms should be given medical attention as soon as possible. Usually, an infant suspected of having infant botulism will undergo a variety of tests. Once available, a stool sample may be obtained to check for the presence of clostridium botulism. Infants showing signs of neurological or muscle damage, such as the inability to support the head or paralysis, will typically undergo diagnostic tests geared toward these areas. The parent may also be asked about the child's diet, in particular, he or she may be questioned about the consumption of products containing corn syrup or honey.

A stool sample may be required to diagnose the presence of clostridium botulism.
A stool sample may be required to diagnose the presence of clostridium botulism.

The treatment for infant botulism may vary according to the severity of the symptoms. Babies with breathing difficulties will receive some type of breathing assistance; infants unable to eat on their own will typically be given intravenous fluids and nutrition until the condition improves. This condition is a medical emergency, and it is important to get help for the infant as soon as possible. For prevention, foods containing honey and corn syrup should not be given to infants. When treatment is received promptly, most babies can make a full recovery from this condition.

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Discussion Comments

jennythelib

@andee - I'm so glad that your friend's baby was okay. Botulism can be deadly for *anyone,* just the levels sometimes found in honey aren't likely to be harmful to anyone else.

Another thing to watch out for is home canning. In school, I learned about a lady who had died of botulism after eating home-canned green beans, but the rest of her family was fine. The doctors finally concluded that she had been snacking on the beans out of the jar, eating them cold, but had heated them (killing the botulism) before serving them to her family. (Botulism is anaerobic - grows best in an oxygen-free environment like a sealed jar.)

My understanding is that food is safe if it has been canned in a special pressure canning device (you can tell I do a lot of canning, right?). But if you just seal the jars using a pot on the stove, the contents might not be hot enough for safety. Then, it's important to reheat until steaming hot.

andee

I have a friend who had a baby that came down with botulism. She didn't know what was wrong as her baby was not interested in eating and had not had a bowel movement for a few days.

When she took her to the doctor they ran some tests and found out she had botulism. Her mom had given her some honey not knowing that it was not safe for babies under 1 year of age.

Infant botulism and honey are closely connected as this is one of the main reasons a baby will come down with botulism.

Dealing with botulism poisoning in a baby can be pretty scary. The mom felt so bad, but at least they were able to get her treated right away before it became too severe.

I know most bottles of honey contain the warning not to feed to anyone under the age of 1, but not all of them do so this is something to really watch for.

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    • Honey may contain botulinum spores, so it should not be given to infants.
      Honey may contain botulinum spores, so it should not be given to infants.
    • A baby with infant botulism may refuse to eat or nurse.
      A baby with infant botulism may refuse to eat or nurse.
    • Infant botulism is a life-threatening infant disease.
      Infant botulism is a life-threatening infant disease.
    • Weak crying may be a symptom of infant botulism.
      Weak crying may be a symptom of infant botulism.
    • A stool sample may be required to diagnose the presence of clostridium botulism.
      A stool sample may be required to diagnose the presence of clostridium botulism.