I Got Fake Botox at an Unlicensed Med Spa—And It Could Have Cost Me My Life

Channing Smith

On April 15, 2024, the CDC announced that fake Botox had been found in at least nine states, affecting 19 people in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, and Washington. The 19 individuals reported adverse reactions, with nine undergoing hospitalization for conditions such as blurred vision, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, constipation, fatigue, and shortness of breath.

One of the 19 victims, who has requested anonymity, agreed to speak with Glamour about her experience developing botulism, a serious illness caused by toxins attacking the body’s nervous system, after she was unknowingly injected with counterfeit Botox at a New York City med spa. Ahead, she details her symptoms, her misdiagnosis from two hospitals, and her progress on the road to recovery.

It’s been three months since I got botulism from fake Botox. Three months and this is the first week I’m starting to almost feel normal again.

It all started when I got “Botox” in February. I went to the same med spa I’d been going to for three years. It’s in Manhattan in New York City, and I heard about it through word of mouth—a friend of mine went there. It had been advertised to me as licensed and looked so legitimate. The place is so nice and the injector wore a white doctor’s coat. They have an Instagram, carried reputable skin-care brands, and everything.

The main reason I went was because it was so much more inexpensive than my dermatologist, who I never ended up seeing for injections, though obviously I should have. My dermatologist charges about $1,500 for armpits, which I didn’t want to pay. This med spa was $500 and it seemed legit, so I was like, Whatever, I’ll do it.

[The med spa] had been advertised to me as licensed and looked so legitimate. The place is so nice and the injector wore a white doctor’s coat.

I also had a great experience the first few times. I’d been getting Botox in my armpits for hyperhidrosis or excessive sweating. I went every nine months or so. I also got injections in my face about once every six months. I had been going there with no problem since 2021.

When I got sick, I’d had my armpits injected. I went to the appointment and at the time I didn’t notice, but looking back, I was numbed for much longer than usual. It was also a lot more painful than it was before. I thought maybe I was sensitive because I was getting my period. I justified it in my head. I didn’t try to make it out to be strange, but it hurt a lot. After finishing my armpits up, I pointed something out on my face, and the injector took the same syringe and put some in my forehead.

After about five days, I got this weird wave of dizziness that wouldn’t go away. I thought I was just hungry and needed to eat, but food didn’t help. Within that hour I started seeing double. I thought maybe I just needed glasses or something. I just didn’t think anything of it and went to bed.

I woke up still dizzy but had to go to work, and by the end of the day, I felt even dizzier. I was very weak and couldn’t catch my breath. It felt like there was someone sitting on my chest. I was having difficulty breathing so I thought I was having a panic attack. Not once did Botox cross my mind, especially since I’d gotten it so many times before.

My double vision, dizziness, and shortness of breath continued, but I had to go to a work dinner the next day. We’d been planning it for a long time. But when the food came, I started choking. I couldn’t chew or swallow. It felt like paralysis. My jaw stopped working. I was like, What the fuck is happening to me? I tried to drink some water to calm down, but I couldn’t sip the water. It was coming out of my mouth and I was choking on water.

I was dizzy, weak, and having trouble breathing. Then I started slurring my words.

I removed myself from the dinner table, went to the bathroom, and splashed water on my face. I was really starting to panic at this point. I thought I was just having a really bad panic attack, but I felt totally sound in my mind. It was so weird, so I just went home. This was maybe 10 days into March.

At this point I was dizzy, weak, and having trouble breathing. Then I started slurring my words. I was slurring so much that my fiancé asked me if I was drunk, but I don’t drink, since I’m in recovery. It was so bad he thought I’d relapsed. I felt like I couldn’t speak and wasn’t making sense. We thought I was having a stroke so he took me to the ER.

They ran a bunch of tests; they did a CT scan, checked my heart, did a chest scan. They’d asked me if I had traveled, ate anything weird, got any vaccines. No, no, and no. I didn’t even think to mention Botox. It didn’t even cross my mind. Every single test came back normal. The doctors said: “You’re totally fine. We think it’s psychosomatic.”

I was discharged and went home, assuming it was anxiety. But the next day I woke up and my arms had fully stopped working. They were pretty much in paralysis. It was extreme muscle weakness. I couldn’t even lift them. My fingers were still working, so I could text but I couldn’t even lift my arm up. A toothbrush felt like 500 pounds. I couldn’t even brush my teeth on my own. I couldn’t shower on my own. I was like, This is so fucking weird. What is happening to me? But the ER had said I was fine the night before.

I went to my parents’ house, and when my mom saw me, she said, “No, something is seriously wrong.” She took me to our primary-care doctor. At this point I had lost 10 pounds within a week. I was so weak and frail and fragile, and my body wasn’t working. It was horrible. When my PCP saw me, he told me to go to back to the emergency room, so I did and was admitted.

They did a Lyme disease panel test, a spinal tap, an MRI. They did every test under the sun. I was there for 24 hours. But everything came back normal. They said it sounded like MS or like ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). It was horrible and traumatic. They ran every test but everything came back normal.

Every single test came back normal. The doctors said: “You’re totally fine. We think it’s psychosomatic.”

At this point my symptoms were significantly worse. I was fully bedridden. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t chew. Every time I would stand up, I was throwing up or pooping my pants. I couldn’t keep anything down. I couldn’t even keep water down. My shortness of breath, my double vision, my arms; it was so bad.

My symptoms finally plateaued on the March 17, meaning they didn’t get worse. That was about four weeks since I had gotten the injections. The ER told us to follow up with a neurologist, so we called every hospital in the area trying to get in. Then I had a friend come see me. We were sitting in bed talking, and she said, “Didn’t you say you got Botox in your arms recently?” Then a lightbulb went off.

We looked up Botox side effects, risks, and adverse reactions, then discovered botulism and its symptoms. I had every single one. It starts with the double vision and dizziness, then trouble breathing, then muscle weakness. It was every single one. I was like, Oh my God. Until then, no hospital had an answer for me. I knew something was really wrong, but everyone kept telling me I was fine.

Now that I had an idea of what was going on, I went back to a different hospital’s emergency department and asked to see a toxicologist or an infectious disease doctor. I saw the head toxicologist and told him everything. He said that this sounded like botulism to a T, based on when I got the injections, when the symptoms started, and how things progressed. Still, he wanted to keep me there on observation to rule out any neuromuscular autoimmune disorders.

I was fully bedridden. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t chew. Every time I would stand up, I was throwing up. I couldn’t keep anything down.

It was so scary and confusing because anything but botulism just wouldn’t make sense. Like I said, I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I’m 28 years old, a healthy weight, live a very healthy lifestyle, and have no prior medical history. There is also no history of autoimmune or serious illness in my family. When I explained this to my doctor, he said that if one of my parents had a disease or condition like this, it could maybe explain how it came on so abruptly, but that wasn’t the case. He concluded it was botulism and called the CDC.

He did a conference call with the neurologist at the hospital, himself, the toxicologist, the CDC, and the Department of Health. They said since I was about four weeks out from the injections, I would probably test negative now that my symptoms had plateaued. So the CDC clinically diagnosed me with botulism.

They said it would go away with time, because Botox has to wear off. Filler, you can dissolve, but Botox you just wait. They assumed that the substance had gone into a blood vessel or a vein and traveled throughout my bloodstream, so the shortness of breath was actually paralysis in my diaphragm. My inability to swallow any food was because there was paralysis in my esophagus and jaw. The double vision is because my eye muscles weren’t working in sync with one another. That’s everything I had been experiencing. And then my arms, obviously, was paralysis from the armpits.

Unfortunately, because I was misdiagnosed by the first two hospitals, I had missed the window for the antitoxin that the CDC can prescribe. Essentially, botulism is like snake venom in terms of being poisoned, so this antitoxin puts antibodies in you to stop it from getting worse, but it doesn’t reverse anything. Since my symptoms had plateaued, the antitoxin was no longer necessary. It wouldn’t have changed anything at that point.

The injector I saw wasn’t even licensed, which makes sense: A brand like Botox can’t legally give a nonlicensed practitioner that product.

The doctors recommended speech therapy to learn how to swallow again and put me on a muscle strengthener and steroid while I recovered, which was life-changing. Like I said, a toothbrush had felt like 500 pounds. I had to take off work. My life was on pause because I was so weak.

Later that day the Department of Health called and said they looked into it. The injector I saw wasn’t even licensed, though he was advertised as such. I was shocked. As I said, the place was so nice. I never would have guessed. It turns out he’s an esthetician, not a licensed injector, which makes sense. A brand like Botox can’t legally give a nonlicensed person their product. This means yes, I’m one of the 19 people that the CDC cited in their counterfeit Botox report.

The Department of Health has reached out to me, and the CDC. Stories about our fake Botox have been on CNN, the Daily Mail. Everywhere. My life has been turned upside down.

Looking back, a few things were unusual about the med spa. I had to pay over Venmo. Their website didn’t include Botox on their service menu. It had chemical peels, laser removal, eyelash tints, and other things estheticians can do. But nothing a licensed injector could.

The injector is under investigation and now we’re in a lawsuit, which is why I can’t share my name. Otherwise, it’s been a really slow, gradual road to getting back to my normal life. Something like walking my dogs or going out to dinner, I’m still pretty tired that I have to nap a lot. But as of this week—three months later—I’m starting to feel normal again. But I’m also grateful, because the toxicologist said that had I gotten any more units of counterfeit Botox, I’d probably be in the ICU on a ventilator.

My advice is just to never cut corners. Injectables aren’t something you should try to get a deal on.

It actually turned out to be best-case scenario. It’s not a lifelong autoimmune disorder that I have to deal with, and I don’t have permanent damage. So all in all, I’m really lucky. But it was so traumatic. I really thought I was going to die.

I never need to do Botox again. I can deal with sweaty armpits and a couple wrinkles in my forehead. It’s fine. Doctors put Botox on my allergy list and said, “So next time, think about it.” I’m like, Next time? I’m never doing this stuff again. It’s been the worst three months of my life.

That’s not to say other people shouldn’t get Botox. My advice is just to never cut corners. Injectables aren’t something you should try to get a deal on. Go to a medical doctor, err on the side of caution, go to your dermatologist and talk to them about it before you actually decide to do Botox. The infectious disease toxicologist actually told me that Botox is usually so safe. It’s used medically, therapeutically, and cosmetically. It is normally a very, very safe product. What happened to me is extremely rare. My “Botox” just so happened to be counterfeit.

Because it’s so accessible and injections are so normalized now, you need to know where you’re getting it from. I only did it because it was cheaper. I love my dermatologist and trust her with my life. I’ve been going to her for years and I would’ve done it with her, but I was just like, I don’t want to pay $1,500. So that’s why I went to this place. Obviously, I learned my lesson.

I don’t know if I’ll do anything cosmetic with needles again. I’m so traumatized. If I do, I don’t think I will for a long, long time. I’m hoping that by the time I’m actually at an age where it feels like I want to do something about my wrinkles or for vanity purposes, there will be a new technology that doesn’t require needles. But for now, I’m okay with wrinkles and sweat. I was so, so sick. I’ve never been so sick in my life. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

This story has been edited for length and clarity.

Danielle Sinay is the associate beauty editor at Glamour. Follow her on Instagram @daniellesinay.

Originally Appeared on Glamour