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Honey and Infants
Q: Why is it that honey isn't safe for infants?
A: You are correct--honey is not safe for infants! Although it is sweet tasting, honey should never be given to infants less than a year of age because it may cause a rare type of food poisoning (infant botulism). Honey may contain the spores of a bacteria germ that can cause infant botulism. These spores can also be found in soil, water, and even household dust. Honey should never be added to food, water, or formula that you are going to give to an infant. Even the honey in some processed foods or just dipping a baby's pacifier in honey can cause this problem.
A bacteria germ that produces a substance in the body (called a toxin) causes infant botulism. This toxin affects the place where the ends of nerves and muscles meet. This results in significant floppiness and weakness in the infant. After an infant eats the spores of this bacteria, the disease usually presents within hours to one week of the exposure. The disease starts as constipation, followed quickly by floppiness and weakness with a weak cry, poor feeding, and weakness of facial muscles. It frequently causes the infant to have an unusual breathing pattern (apnea), which often requires putting infants on a ventilator to help them breathe. Identifying the toxin in the stool makes the diagnosis. This nerve damage can last weeks to months.
Although infant botulism is very rare as perfect conditions that allow the bacteria germ to produce this toxin are necessary, it is still wise to never give honey to an infant.
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Henry Bernstein, M.D., is currently the associate chief of the Division of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital, Boston. He also has an academic appointment at Harvard Medical School.