Botulinum toxin, one of the poisons allegedly stockpiled by Saddam Hussein, is being injected into women's foreheads to iron out wrinkles and into children with cerebral palsy to relax twisted muscles.
Just a teaspoonful of the poison would be enough to wipe out a small town, but it can also be used to control squints, the facial tics and spasmodic movements associated with dystonia, a neurological disorder, multiple sclerosis and to cure patients with difficulty swallowing.
Its latest application, described in the American Medical Association's Archives of Dermatology, is in the control of the socially crippling disorder known as hyperhidrosis - excessive sweating in the palms, feet and armpits.
Sufferers may be unable to control their body odour and are often embarrassed by their clammy hands. Treatments have included the application of acids, aldehydes and metal salts, but none work effectively and some patients have resorted to surgery to cut the nerves supplying the sweat glands.
Dr Marcus Naumann of the University of Wurzburg, Germany, injected the toxin, branded Botox, into the palms, soles and armpits of 11 sufferers and found it abolished sweating completely within a week. Repeat injections were required in three patients after four weeks.
Dr Naumann said, "Most patients never go to the doctor because they know there is no treatment. I expect the numbers coming forward to increase dramatically in the next few years."
The toxin causes a form of food poisoning known as botulism, a creeping paralysis the first signs of which are difficulty in swallowing and speaking. It works by blocking nerve transmission which weakens or paralyses muscles. Doctors discovered that the same effect could be put to medical use by injecting tiny amounts to ease a range of disorders caused by involuntary contraction of the muscles.
The treatment is also being used by cosmetic surgeons as a substitute for a face-lift. Used as a kind of cosmetic warfare, tiny injections every few months can eliminate frown lines and wrinkles by paralysing the facial muscles that cause them. They are also cheaper and less painful than surgery.
Some women now have regular injections, regarding them as part of their body maintenance on a par with waxing their legs. Men too have had the treatment for heavy frown lines. The dose of toxin used in these treatments is seven times more dilute than that injected to control facial tics or muscle spasms.
Dr Naumann said, "It can help cosmetically if you do not want surgery, but these are not the patients that we treat."Reuse content