What is botulism?

Bacteria (Clostridium botulinum) found in honey can cause botulism, a severe type of food poisoning. The bacteria produce a toxin (botulin) that attacks the nerves that control the muscles in the body. There’s no way to know if honey is tainted, since you can’t smell, taste, or see the bacteria, so children under the age of 1 should not be given honey (or unpasteurized corn syrup).

In addition to honey, foods that aren’t properly cooked or preserved can be a source of botulism. This is especially true of fresh fruits and vegetables canned at home. The bacteria that cause botulism are also commonly found in dirt and soil, so keeping young children from being exposed to the bacteria altogether is nearly impossible. 

The classic symptoms of botulism include double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, muscle weakness, and constipation. In infants, constipation is often the first sign of botulism, followed by a weak cry and poor muscle tone. 

Fortunately, botulism is rare. About 145 cases are reported each year in the U.S. Nearly 75 percent of the infections occur in infants. The younger the child, the greater his or her risk for botulism. This may be because infants have immature digestive systems that can’t protect them from infection. Once the digestive system matures (after your child’s first birthday) you can give your child honey. 

Last updated June 22, 2017

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