Health Break | Published May 7, 2007 | Written by Sady Ribeiro, MD

Botulin: The Baked Potato Poison

Did you know that potatoes baked while wrapped in aluminum foil should be kept hot until served or immediately refrigerated? Cooling potatoes on a counter wrapped in foil are perfect areas for the bacteria Clostridium botulinum to produce a lethal toxin. One that has no odor, so you wont know if you are feeding the poison to your family.

Botulin is a neurotoxin produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum that can cause a lethal disease known as botulism typically characterized by a musculosketetal paralysis, including the respiratory muscles.

Botulism is primarily foodborne and can be prevented through careful preparations. Home-canned foods with low acid content, such as asparagus, green beans, beets and corn are often sources of botulin contamination. Those preparing for home canning this year should carefully cook and seal food to reduce contamination.

The botulism toxin is destroyed by high temperatures. To ensure food safety, families should boil home-canned food for 10 minutes before eating. The Center for Disease Control also recommends that infants and children less than 12 months should not be fed honey because it many contain spores of the bacteria. Honey is safe for persons 1 year of age and older.

Muscle paralysis occurs with the ingestion of the toxin, because the neurotoxin botulin blocks the release of a substance required for muscle contraction. According to the CDC, symptoms of botulism may include vision problems, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness and generally begin 18 to 36 hours after eating a contaminated food, but they can occur as early as 6 hours or as late as 10 days.

Although botulin is lethal in poor food preparations, the muscle paralysis effect that can kill is used therapeutically by physicians and the health care community to treat conditions where muscle spasticity is an issue. Since 1968, when the botulin toxin was first used successfully to treat blepharospam , a condition where an involuntary contraction of eye muscles occur; several other conditions such as spasticity due to stroke or Multiple sclerosis, tremor of voice caused by dysfunction of speech muscles, back pain have received the same treatment under physicians orders.

It did not take long to realize that botulin could also be successfully used to reduce wrinkles. In fact, botulinum application in facial muscles is today the number one cosmetic procedure in the United States. Serendipity brought another use for botulin as patients with migraine, who were receiving botolinum treatment for their facial wrinkles, started reporting that their headaches decreased in frequency and severity. Clinical studies have shown that botulin toxin may be used for patients with chronic migraines that have not responded to more traditional therapies.

The bacteria Clostridium botulinum is not the first or only bacteria used as for its clinical treatment properties under the careful guidance and recommendations of the health care community. Under physician guidance, the effect of the bacteria may bring aesthetic appeal or relief from pain or muscle spasticity, but when found in food in the home and ingested by families in lethal doses, the toxin produced by Clostridium botulinum can deliver devastating results. If you or your family presents any of the symptoms of food poisoning, seek immediate medical attention.

Sady Ribeiro, MD is Board certified in Pain Medicine and the Medical Director of the Mount Nittany Medical Center Pain Management Clinic.