Sunday, February 10, 2008

Garlic Oil and Botulism

I am a member of a wonderful herbal reference website, HerbMentor, that is catered specifically to helping people learn more about herbal healing. One of the great features of this website is their community forum, which also includes the added benefit of having access to knowledgeable and experienced herbalists who are willing to share their knowledge and expertise with those of us who are still learning.

Recently there was a question about whether you could be at risk of getting botulism if you used garlic oil to treat an ear infection, which I had also been curious about. It seemed that no one really had an answer, so I did some research, and found some good information.

Apparently there are three ways to get botulism:

"Food-borne botulism is the commonest type, with hundreds of outbreaks worldwide each year. The bacteria are dead or gone by the time you eat the food, but the poison remains. Most food-borne botulism is attributed to home-canned foods.

Infant botulism was only discovered 25 years ago... Children under one year old either eat bacterial spores, or inhale them. Spores of C. botulinum can be blown around when it's dusty and windy. If inhaled, they can end up in the lungs rather than the intestines. They settle there and begin producing toxin.

Spores in food can also cause infant botulism. This is different from food-borne botulism, where only the poison is in the food. Honey and corn syrup are especially associated with infant botulism and should not be given to children under one year old.

Wound botulism is the rarest type. Live bacteria infect an open cut, and poison is carried through the body by the blood..." (Botulism)

From reading this, I would suspect that the only way you'd be at risk for getting botulism using garlic oil in the ears, is if the ear drum had burst (you shouldn't put any type of drops into an ear if there is any chance that the ear drum has burst).

If you are making your own garlic oil infusion, and are trying to prevent botulism growth in your infusion, I found some information on a few websites:

"When raw garlic is stored in oil, Clostridium botulinum (botulism) bacteria can grow. These mixtures must be refrigerated to slow bacterial growth. After 2 weeks of refrigeration, the increased number of bacteria will become a food safety hazard. Therefore, these mixtures should not be refrigerated longer than 2 weeks.

When garlic is immediately removed after flavoring oil, the bacteria will not have a "food source" for growth. The flavored oil can be stored safely at room temperature."

When I made my infusion, I immediately removed the garlic, as mentioned above. But if you wanted to make sure, adding acid seems to prevent botulism growth. Also mentioned is adding either GSE or tea tree oil.

"Because garlic can harbor botulism bacteria, the FDA requires manufacturers of garlic and olive oil products to add acidifying ingredients such as vinegar or lemon juice. Oil blends containing garlic are safe for external use, and the addition of tea tree oil or grapefruit seed extract as a preservative destroys any botulism that might be present."

I was also very interested to learn about how they diagnose and treat botulism:

There is a test for botulin toxin, but it's only available in certain clinics. It involves injecting the suspected botulin toxin into a mouse that's received a toxoid, a sort of vaccine against poison. In the U.S., tissue and stool samples are often flown to Atlanta for inspection by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), who take botulism very seriously....

Luckily, the CDC has also developed an antitoxin that neutralizes botulin. However, the antitoxin needs to be administered as soon as possible after diagnosis. The medication can't repair nerve endings already damaged. This means that while you may survive, you will be left in the state you were in at the time the medication was administered. That may mean paralysis, sometimes to the point of being unable to talk or even swallow.

The good news is that you'll recover because new nerves grow to replace those killed. It may take up to a year before you're fully yourself again, but a few months is typical.

The antitoxin is made from horse serum and isn't used in infants for fear of a deadly reaction. This doesn't mean they die. Children who have ingested botulism bacteria are given medications that cause vomiting or treatments like enemas that are able to remove undigested food from the digestive system. So long as the lungs can be kept in working order, botulism won't kill you. With mechanical ventilators and intubation, 95% of North American victims now survive." (Botulism, pg. 2)

There was also some good information about preventing botulism, although preventing botulism is sometimes impossible.

The C. botulinum bacteria is anaerobic, meaning it likes airless environments. This is why you can get food-borne botulism out of a can. Very few cases of botulism arise from commercially canned food. Most occur when individuals can their own products...

Botulin toxin has been found in North America in these foods:

  • canned corn
  • baked potatoes
  • peppers
  • green beans
  • soups
  • beets
  • asparagus
  • mushrooms
  • ripe olives
  • spinach
  • tuna fish
  • chicken, chicken livers, and liver paté
  • luncheon meats
  • ham
  • sausage
  • stuffed eggplant
  • lobster
  • smoked and salted fish
  • garlic-in-oil dressing

Only highly acidic foods are safe from C. botulinum. Freezing will shut down poison production, but a fridge isn't cold enough. The following food-handling procedures can help you to prevent food-borne botulism:

  • Preserved food should be heated to a temperature above 100°C (212°F) for at least 10 minutes during the canning process.
  • Do not eat or store cooked foods that have been at room temperature for four hours or more.
  • Do not eat foil wrapped baked potatoes that have been left at room temperature and do not store chopped garlic or onions in oil at room temperature.
  • If eating home-canned fish or vegetables, boil the food first with frequent stirring for 10 minutes.
  • Do not feed honey or corn syrup to infants less than one year old." (Botulism, pg. 2)
Well, there you go. Now you know about the causes, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of botulism.

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