Botox seems to be just about everywhere these days. Though it’s been known to science for well over a century and has been used in medicine for over 50 years, it has rapidly grown in popularity in recent years.

Today, Botox is used in a variety of medical treatments, cosmetic procedures, and other applications, but many people still don’t know much about this versatile and fascinating drug. To learn more, let’s take a look at everything you need to know about Botox.

What is Botox?

Believe it or not, Botox is derived from a toxin that is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. In large doses, this toxin is responsible for botulism, a type of severe food poisoning that can lead to paralysis and even death. That may not sound like the sort of substance you’d want to be injected into your body, but after several rounds of medical tests that began in 1978, scientists discovered that a purified form of the botulinum neurotoxin, also called onabotulinumtoxinA and better known by the brand name of Botox, is safe and useful in a variety of applications when used in appropriately small dosages.

How Does Botox Work?

One of the botulinum toxin’s most dangerous effects on the body is its ability to disrupt the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine serves as a chemical signal that stimulates muscle tissues to contract, and by blocking these signals at the nerve, botulinum toxin effectively weakens or paralyzes the affected muscles. In those affected by botulism, this may lead to widespread paralysis and, in severe cases, even respiratory failure.

However, this same mechanism of action is also what makes Botox so useful in medical and cosmetic settings. By utilizing very small doses of Botox in targeted injections, medical professionals can relax or paralyze specific muscle groups in your body to achieve the desired effect. These injections are typically done in a doctor’s office over a short period of time, with the number and location of the injections varying depending on the goal of the treatment.

What Does It Treat?

Botox was initially conceived as a treatment for strabismus, or crossed eyes caused by dysfunctional eye muscles. The drug was also soon approved for treatment of blepharospasm, or involuntary spasms of the eyelids. Beginning in the 1990s, however, the number of uses for Botox rapidly expanded as doctors began to experiment with a variety of off-label uses.

Today, Botox is used to treat a whole host of medical conditions, including:

  • Cervical dystonia, or involuntary contraction of the neck muscles
  • Hyperhidrosis, or profuse and uncontrollable sweating
  • Dystonia, or repetitive and involuntary muscle contractions affecting one or more parts of the body
  • Overactive bladder, or sudden and frequent urges to urinate
  • Atrial fibrillation, or irregular and uncontrolled heart rhythms

Of course, Botox injections are more well-known today because of their use in cosmetic treatments. Its ability to relax facial muscles has proven especially effective in smoothing out wrinkles, reducing the appearance of crow’s feet, minimizing laugh lines and frown lines, and more.

While you may picture stiff, artificial-looking faces when you think of cosmetic Botox treatments, proper injections are able to smooth out unsightly lines without impairing your facial expressions and muscle movements. Some cosmetic surgeons also use Botox as a facial shaping agent, targeting specific muscles to create a slimmer, more defined facial profile.

What Are the Potential Side Effects?

Though decades of testing and use have shown Botox to be largely safe and effective, it does come with potential risks. The most common side effect is pain, swelling, bruising, or redness at the injection site, which is most common with injections done by less experienced doctors. You may also experience headaches and flu-like symptoms in the days following an injection. Eyelid ptosis, which causes the upper eyelids to become droopy, occurs in about 10 percent of people treated for blepharospasm and other eye-related disorders, but is otherwise very uncommon.

In very rare cases, a Botox injection may spread to other parts of the body and cause botulism-like effects. This may cause widespread muscle weakness throughout the body, difficulty breathing or swallowing, impaired speech, vision problems, and loss of bladder control. If you experience any of these symptoms following an injection, it’s important to call your doctor immediately. You may be more likely to experience side effects if you have a neuromuscular disorder, if you take aminoglycoside antibiotics, if you are pregnant, or if you are currently breastfeeding.

From its unusual roots as the derivative of a deadly neurotoxin, Botox has become an effective and popular drug used in a wide range of medical and cosmetic applications. It has proven to be safe when used responsibly, but if you believe Botox may be right for your needs, it’s imperative that you choose a certified and experienced doctor you can trust.