Botulism is a foodborne bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Well, technically the body's reacting to the toxins produced by this bacterium. Adult intestinal toxemia, infant botulism and wound botulism are also caused by this bacterium, and it's the muscle-paralyzing neurotoxin produced by this bacterium that's used in Botox injections.
Botulism begins with fatigue, muscle weakness and vertigo, and it quickly progresses to abdominal pain and swelling, blurry vision, diarrhea, difficulty swallowing, double vision, (severe) dry mouth, nausea and vomiting. As the neurotoxin builds in the body, paralysis begins to set in: The autonomic nervous system begins to fail, there is symmetrical descending paralysis and cranial nerve paralysis, and respiratory muscle weakness leads to respiratory failure. Not only do you wish you were dead, but without prompt treatment, botulism may actually kill you.
Foodborne botulism is commonly caused by improperly canned food, but it may also grow in foods that are allowed to sit at room temperature for too long. The incubation period — the time between exposure to the bacterium (eating contaminated food) and the first symptom of infection — is typically as few as 12 to 72 hours, but it may range between four hours and eight days. More than 90 percent of people infected with Clostridium botulimun will have symptoms of the illness within three to five days [source: Chan-Tack and Bartlett]. Infants infected with Clostridium botulinum, however, won't normally develop symptoms until three to 30 days after exposure [source: FoodSafety.gov].
The good news: The bacterium is vulnerable to high heat. Bringing a home-canned sauce to a boil for 10 minutes before eating it, for example, will kill these bacteria if they're present.
Treating botulism requires the administration of an antitoxin — those with fastest access to the antitoxin, and using it before the body is completely paralyzed, may prevent their paralysis from worsening and reduce their recovery time [source: WHO]. Botulism infections can be fatal, even after treatment, though less than 5 percent of those who are treated die. Left untreated, 60 percent of those infected with the neurotoxin die [source: Arizona Department of Health Services].