What Is Botulism? The Facts on the Rare Illness That’s Put 5 People in the Hospital in California

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For most of us, the risk of feeling queasy from just-expired Greek yogurt is a bigger worry than getting botulism. But recent cases in California are raising concerns about the severe paralytic illness.

According to Food Safety News, five people in Walnut Grove—four of whom bought food at the same gas station—have developed the illness. And the state health department is investigating two possible cases of botulism in Orange County residents who drank an herbal tea made from deer antlers.

The FDA has issued a recall notice for products distributed by U.S. Deer Antlers Exports and Imports Inc., the company that sold the tea (which was also distributed in Florida, Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia). And local officials in Walnut Grove have shut down food and beverage services at the gas station.

So what causes the disease, and what dangers does it pose?

Botulism is caused by a nerve toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, and sometimes by strains of Clostridium baratii and Clostridium butyricum. Foodborne botulism most often comes from home-canned items that haven’t been prepared in a safe manner. If your canning containers appear to be leaking or look dented or cracked, it’s best to toss them ASAP.

The damage done by botulism poisoning can be very serious. The classic botulism symptoms include double or blurred vision, slurred speech, drooping eyelids, difficulty swallowing, and muscle weakness that can progress to paralysis if left untreated.

What makes it difficult to treat botulism early is the fact that the signs typically don’t present until 18 to 36 hours after the contaminated food has been consumed. Sometimes symptoms don’t show up until 10 days later. And in other cases, they may develop within a few hours.

As for how the illness is treated, doctors may give botulism patients an antitoxin to stop the poison from entering the bloodstream in the short term. They may also induce vomiting or use enemas to extract any contaminated food that’s still in the gut.

A hospital stay is almost always necessary. In severe cases, a patient may require a ventilator for breathing assistance. Some patients will will suffer from shortness of breath for years after.

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Here’s some good news though: According to the CDC, the rate of death from botulism has fallen from about 50% to 3-5% in the last 50 years.

To steer clear of botulism, be extra vigilant when preparing or buying canned goods. And see your doctor or head to the ER stat if you’re experiencing any indicators of the illness.

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