What is the pathophysiology of botulism?

Updated: Feb 15, 2019
  • Author: Kirk M Chan-Tack, MD; Chief Editor: Pranatharthi Haran Chandrasekar, MBBS, MD  more...
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The mechanism of action involves toxin-mediated blockade of neuromuscular transmission in cholinergic nerve fibers. This is accomplished by either inhibiting acetylcholine release at the presynaptic clefts of the myoneural junctions or by binding acetylcholine itself. Toxins are absorbed from the stomach and small intestine, where they are not denatured by digestive enzymes. Subsequently, they are hematogenously disseminated and block neuromuscular transmission in cholinergic nerve fibers. The nervous, gastrointestinal, endocrine, and metabolic systems are predominantly affected.

Because the motor end plate responds to acetylcholine, botulinum toxin ingestion results in hypotonia that manifests as descending symmetric flaccid paralysis and is usually associated with gastrointestinal symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Cranial nerves are affected early in the disease course. Later complications include paralytic ileus, severe constipation, and urinary retention.

Wound botulism results when wounds are contaminated with C botulinum spores. Wound botulism has developed following traumatic injury that involved soil contamination, among injection drug users (particularly those who use black-tar heroin [2] ), and after cesarean delivery. The wound may appear deceptively benign. Traumatized and devitalized tissue provides an anaerobic medium for the spores to germinate into vegetative organisms and to produce neurotoxin, which then disseminates hematogenously. The nervous, endocrine, and metabolic systems are predominantly affected. Symptoms develop after an incubation period of 4-14 days, with a mean of 10 days. The clinical symptoms of wound botulism are similar to those of foodborne botulism except that gastrointestinal symptoms (including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea) are uncommon.

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