Ciguatera Poisoning

  • Medical Author:
    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

woman with abdominal pain

What is ciguatera poisoning?

Ciguatera is a type of food poisoning. The ciguatera toxin may be found in large reef fish, most commonly barracuda, grouper, red snapper, eel, amberjack, sea bass, and Spanish mackerel. These fish live in coral reef waters between latitudes of 35 degrees south to 35 degrees north, corresponding to the area located between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. These geographic lines ring the earth north and south of the equator and make up the tropics. These areas include the Caribbean Sea, Hawaii, and coastal Central America.

Ciguatera toxin tends to accumulate in predator fish, such as the barracuda and other carnivorous reef fish, because they eat other fish that consume toxin-producing algae (dinoflagellates) that live in coral reef waters.

Ciguatera toxin is harmless to fish but poisonous to humans. The toxin is odorless and tasteless, and it is heat-resistant, so cooking does not destroy the toxin. Eating ciguatera-contaminated tropical or subtropical fish poisons the person who eats it.

What are the symptoms of ciguatera poisoning?

Symptoms of ciguatera poisoning generally begins six to eight hours after eating the contaminated fish.

Symptoms include:

Hot and cold sensation may be reversed.

Severe cases of ciguatera poisoning may result in tearing of the eyes, chills, skin rash, itching, shortness of breath, drooling, and paralysis. Death due to heart or respiratory failure occurs in rare cases.

Quick GuideUncommon and Common Food-Poisoning Dangers in Pictures

Uncommon and Common Food-Poisoning Dangers in Pictures

What is the treatment for ciguatera poisoning?

If you or someone you know has ingested a fish that you suspect might be contaminated with ciguatera toxin, and you or they have signs or symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, pain, trouble breathing, seizure, confusion, or abnormal skin color, call either an ambulance or the National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) for guidance.

  • The National Poison Control Center phone number is 1-800-222-1222. This number is routed to the poison control center that serves your area.
  • Place the telephone number (along with police, fire, and 911 or equivalent) near your home phones.
  • Do not induce vomiting or give syrup of Ipecac.
    • Ipecac was formerly used to induce vomiting in poisoned patients where there was a chance to get the toxin out of the body. Several advisory bodies such as the American Association of Poison Control Centers and the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended that Ipecac NOT be used and that it should not even be kept in the household. For more information on this subject go to: http://www.poison.org/prepared/ipecac.asp
  • Do not give activated charcoal at home. Allow medical personnel to decide if this treatment is appropriate.

The poison control center will instruct you what to do.

  • Maintain hydration. Intravenous fluids may be necessary for uncontrollable nausea and vomiting.
  • There is no specific antidote for ciguatera poisoning.
  • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) may help relieve itching. Give 25-50 mg every 6 hours.
  • Alcohol, fish, nuts, and nut oils should be avoided after exposure to ciguatera poisoning because they may trigger recurrent symptoms.

When should I see a doctor for ciguatera poisoning?

  • Severe cases of ciguatera poisoning require hospitalization for intravenous fluids.
  • If you think you may have ciguatera poisoning, seek immediate medical attention.
  • A doctor should be consulted in every case about treatment for ciguatera poisoning, including available medications.

Medically reviewed by a Board-Certified Family Practice Physician

REFERENCES:

National Capital Poison Center. What is Ipecac Syrup?

MedscapeReference.com. Ciguatera Toxicity.

Last Editorial Review: 3/11/2016

Reviewed on 3/11/2016
References
Medically reviewed by a Board-Certified Family Practice Physician

REFERENCES:

National Capital Poison Center. What is Ipecac Syrup?

MedscapeReference.com. Ciguatera Toxicity.

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