Botulism is an illness that causes muscle weakness. Infant botulism is a specific type that only affects babies up to the age of about 1 year.
There are several different types of botulism, including:
- foodborne botulism
- inhalation botulism
- wound botulism
- infant botulism
Each form comes from a strain of bacteria called Clostridium botulinum. Botulism is a rare condition, but it is potentially fatal and needs prompt treatment.
Keep reading for more information on infant botulism, including the causes, symptoms, and treatment methods.
Infant botulism is a rare bacterial infection that occurs in the large intestine of babies.
It develops when a baby ingests C. botulinum spores, which are present in honey and soil.
Infant botulism causes muscle weakness, which can lead to difficulty eating and breathing.
If doctors catch infant botulism early, they can successfully treat it with no long-term ill effects for the child.
Infant botulism occurs when a baby ingests C. botulinum spores. Although these spores are present in the soil and occasionally on unwashed produce, the most common identifiable way that an infant will come into contact with the bacteria is by ingesting honey.
Babies are at risk of infant botulism until they reach about 1 year of age. Before their first birthday, their digestive system has not become developed enough to handle the bacteria.
In older children and adults, the digestive system typically removes the bacteria before it has a chance to secrete enough toxin to cause illness.
One of the first symptoms of botulism is constipation. However, this is often not a good indicator of botulism since many factors can cause constipation in babies. A baby with this symptom alone is unlikely to require emergency treatment.
However, as botulism develops, parents and caregivers may notice additional signs that include:
- trouble feeding
- weakened muscle tone
- difficulty breathing
- lack of facial expressions
- decrease in movement
- trouble swallowing
- excessive drooling
- slow or no reflexes
- unfocused eyes
If a parent or caregiver notices any of these signs and symptoms, they should ask a doctor or pediatrician to examine their baby as soon as possible or take them to the emergency room.
The symptoms can take a few days to a month to appear, depending on how fast the bacteria grow and secrete toxins in the stomach.
To diagnose infant botulism, a doctor will begin by talking to the parent or caregiver about what signs of illness they noticed.
The doctor will ask about constipation, muscle weakness, and whether or not the baby has ingested honey. They will also perform a physical examination.
If the doctor suspects botulism, they may take stool, vomit, or blood samples that laboratory technicians can check for the toxin.
However, these tests can take several days, so the initial examination is the primary means of diagnosis. As prompt treatment is essential, they may begin treatment before the results of the tests return.
Doctors treat botulism in the hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU). If necessary, they will use a ventilator to assist the baby’s breathing. They may also provide intravenous (IV) fluids if the baby has trouble feeding.
In addition, a doctor will often treat the baby with botulism immune globulin intravenous (BIGIV). BIGIV can help the baby recover faster, allowing them to spend less time in the hospital.
With early treatment, a baby can fully recover from infant botulism.
The best way to try to prevent infant botulism is to avoid giving honey to a baby under the age of 1 year. Parents and caregivers should also avoid feeding infants any processed products that may contain honey.
It is possible that a baby may contract botulism from dust or dirt, either from ingesting it or by breathing in dust particles, so not all cases of infant botulism are preventable. The risk is highest near manufacturing or agricultural sites.
When preparing homemade baby food, parents and caregivers should adequately cook the vegetables. Cooking can help kill the bacteria and reduce the risk of accidental ingestion.
A baby with botulism will need treatment in the hospital. The hospital staff can help ensure that they get adequate nutrients and assistance with breathing as necessary.
Most infants recover after treatment, and parents or caregivers should start to see their normal behaviors return. The baby’s muscles should regain their strength, and they should demonstrate no issues with breathing or feeding.
According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 141 cases of infant botulism in the United States in 2017. Infant botulism accounted for 77% of all reported cases of botulism in the U.S. that year.
In total, 26 states and the District of Columbia reported cases of botulism, with the highest rate being in California. The CDC did not report any deaths relating to this illness.
There is limited evidence to confirm the prevalence of infant botulism in other parts of the world. One older review of cases found that many countries had not reported any cases of infant botulism.
The authors noted that this conflicts with the fact that C. botulinum spores are present in the soil in these places. They concluded that these countries underreport or underrecognize infant botulism, or both.
Infant botulism is a serious illness that can be life-threatening to a baby. It causes trouble breathing and feeding. Without treatment, the complications can be fatal.
Doctors treat infant botulism in the hospital where they can administer IV fluids and provide breathing assistance as necessary.
With prompt treatment, a baby can fully recover from the illness without any long-term health effects.