Clinical spectrum of botulism

Muscle Nerve. 1998 Jun;21(6):701-10. doi: 10.1002/(sici)1097-4598(199806)21:6<701::aid-mus1>;2-b.


Botulism is a paralyzing disease caused by the toxin of Clostridium botulinum. The toxin produces skeletal muscle paralysis by producing a presynaptic blockade to the release of acetylcholine. Recent studies have pinpointed the site of action of the several types of botulinum neurotoxin at the nerve terminal. Since the discovery of the toxin about 100 years ago, five clinical forms of botulism have been described: 1) classic or foodborne botulism; 2) wound botulism; 3) infant botulism; 4) hidden botulism; 5) inadvertent botulism. A clinical pattern of descending weakness is characteristic of all five forms. Almost all human cases of botulism are caused by one of three serotypes (A, B, or E). Classic and wound botulism were the only two forms known until the last quarter of this century. Wound botulism was rare until the past decade. Now there are increasing numbers of cases of wound botulism in injecting drug users. Infant botulism, first described in 1976, is now the most frequently reported form. In infant botulism spores of Clostridium botulinum are ingested and germinate in the intestinal tract. Hidden botulism, the adult variant of infant botulism, occurs in adult patients who usually have an abnormality of the intestinal tract that allows colonization by Clostridium botulinum. Inadvertent botulism is the most recent form to be described. It occurs in patients who have been treated with injections of botulinum toxin for dystonic and other movement disorders. Laboratory proof of botulism is established with the detection of toxin in the patient's serum, stool, or wound. The detection of Clostridium botulinum bacteria in the stool or wound should also be considered evidence of clinical botulism. Electrophysiologic studies can provide presumptive of botulism in patients with the clinical signs of botulism. Electrophysiologic testing can be especially helpful when bioassay studies are negative. The most consistent electrophysiologic abnormality is a small evoked muscle action potential in response to a single supramaximal nerve stimulus in a clinically affected muscle. Posttetanic facilitation can be found in some affected muscles. Single-fiber EMG studies typically reveal increased jitter and blocking, which become less marked following activation. The major treatment for severe botulism is advance medical and nursing supportive care with special attention to respiratory status.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Botulinum Toxins* / classification
  • Botulism* / classification
  • Botulism* / diagnosis
  • Botulism* / pathology
  • Botulism* / therapy
  • Clostridium botulinum / pathogenicity*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Persian Gulf Syndrome / etiology
  • Pregnancy
  • Sudden Infant Death / etiology


  • Botulinum Toxins