Dangers And Benefits Of Botulinum Toxin

By Ashley Henshaw. May 7th 2016

Botulinum toxin is an extremely dangerous toxin that can lead to botulism. Surprisingly, it has also become a great resource for the medical community. Read this article to learn more about this versatile toxin and how it is being used today.

What is Botulinum Toxin?

Botulinum toxin is a neurotoxin, which means that it is a type of toxin that directly affects nerve cells within the body. This toxin is produced by a certain kind of bacteria that can be found in soil or untreated water. Most commonly, humans are exposed to botulinum toxin when ingesting contaminated food. However, botulinum toxin may also develop in wound infections or the infant gastrointestinal tract.

The Dangers of Botulism

Unfortunately, botulinum toxin is considered to be the most powerful neurotoxin ever discovered. Therefore, it can be extremely dangerous and potentially fatal when ingested by humans or when it appears in a wound infection or infant gastrointestinal tract. As a neurotoxin, botulinum toxin has a powerful effect on the body’s nerve cells. In fact, it can block signals that nerve cells are attempting to send to the brain or to different muscles, which can result in partial paralysis that typically starts in the facial muscles and spreads towards the limbs. This condition is called botulism and it can be fatal if left untreated.

Symptoms of botulism, which usually occur with 8 to 36 hours of ingesting contaminated food, include:

  • Difficulty breathing, swallowing or speaking
  • Dry mouth
  • Double vision
  • Cramping or nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Partial paralysis, decreased reflexes or loss of muscle function or feeling
  • Speech impairment
  • Paralyzed bowels or urine retention

It is important to get treatment right away if you have been exposed to botulinum toxin. After a diagnosis, doctors can provide you with botulinus antitoxin, which can avert the symptoms associated with botulism and eliminate the toxin from the body. The sooner an individual is treated for botulism, the greater their chances of survival.

To avoid ingesting botulinum toxin, be careful about eating any of the following foods, each of which have a greater risk of containing this particular substance:

  • Cured pork and ham
  • Raw or smoked fish
  • Home-canned vegetables
  • Honey
  • Corn syrup

Botulism Outbreaks

Several botulism outbreaks have occurred all over the world, including in the United States. Before the botulinus antitoxin was developed and made readily available, these outbreaks were very deadly. For example, 15 people died from botulinum toxin in jarred olives in California in 1919. Fortunately, better canning procedures and the availability of the antitoxin has reduced the number of outbreaks and increase the survivors of these incidents. In 1977, 59 people became sick as a result of botulinum toxin in home-canned peppers that were served at a Pontiac, Michigan restaurant. Fortunately, none of those affected in that case died as a result of their exposure to the toxin.

In addition, Former President George W. Bush experienced a botulism scare shortly after the events of September 11, 2001. The President and several other White House employees were in Shanghai when they were informed that they may have been exposed to a fatal dose botulinum toxin. Fortunately, subsequent tests showed that they had not been exposed, but this incident demonstrates how botulinum toxin could be used as a bioterrorism weapon.

Medical Uses

Many people are surprised to learn that, despite the many dangers associated with botulinum toxin and botulism, this substance can actually be used safely for a variety of medical and cosmetic procedures. Though botulinum toxin was discovered in the 1800s, it wasn’t until the 1950s that researched began looking for ways to use this toxin in medical procedures. By the 1970s, it was being used on humans to temporarily paralyze specific muscle impulses.

This discovery has led to the use of botulinum toxin for a variety of medical and cosmetic uses, including:

  • Eye conditions: Certain conditions of the eye may be treated by injecting botulinum toxin, including strabismus (crossed eyes) and blepharospasm (uncontrollable blinking).
  • Upper Motor Neuron Syndrome: People with this condition often have weaker muscles that are very tight or unable to lengthen properly. Botulinum toxin can be injected into certain muscles to decrease their level of contraction, which may allow patients to move and exercise.
  • Excessive sweating: Botulinum toxin has been used to inhibit sweating. This use of the toxin is important because it was the first demonstration of a non-muscular use for that type of botulinum toxin.
  • Cervical dystonia: Botulinum toxin has also been used to help with cervical dystonia, which is a neuromuscular disorder affecting the head and neck.
  • Migraines: People with chronic migraines may experience relief after receiving injections of botulinum toxin.
  • Cosmetic procedures: Possibly the most famous use for botulinum toxin is for the reduced appearance of wrinkles. Most people are familiar with this procedure by one of the trade names for botulinum toxin: Botox. With this procedure, the toxin is injected in certain areas to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Typically, this is done in the area around the forehead, eyes, eyebrows and mouth. Since its approval, this use of botulinum toxin has become one of the most common cosmetic procedures in the United States.


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