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Ciguatera poisoning

Published on: 26th January, 2015 | Dive Safety and Medicine
Ciguatera poisoning is a form of food poisoning caused by eating warm water ocean fish. Diving often takes us to tropical locations where local fish are a big part of the menu so divers should know how to minimise the risk of ciguatera poisoning and be aware of the symptoms.

Ciguatera poisoning is a form of food poisoning caused by eating warm water ocean fish.  Diving often takes us to tropical locations where local fish are a big part of the menu so divers should know how to minimise the risk of ciguatera poisoning and be aware of the symptoms.   

Ciguatera poison is produced by dinoflagellate (a form of plankton), which attach themselves to algae growing on tropical reefs.  Small fish eat the algae (and attached plankton), and are in turn eaten by bigger fish. The poison is transmitted up the food chain and may find itself on your dinner plate.

Ciguatera does not affect the appearance, odour or taste of fish, no matter how much is present.  Processes like cooking and freezing will not destroy it and there is no known culinary method that can remove it from a fish.

Minimising the Risk

* avoid eating fish species that feed on small reef fish (including chinamanfish, red bass, paddletail, coral trout, Spanish mackerel, red emperor, wrasse, coral cod, surgeonfish, trevally and yellowtail kingfish);

* avoid eating the head, roe, liver or other viscera (ciguatera is concentrated in these parts);

* vary the type of fish eaten;

* avoid eating large fish, limit whole weight to around 6kgs per fish (ciguatera poisoning occurs more frequently from larger fish);

* when first eating a warm water ocean fish, only eat a small portion (less than 300g) and watch for ciguatera symptoms;

* avoid mixing fillets taken from different large warm water ocean fish species;

* do not catch fish from known ciguatera areas; and

* do not eat any unidentified fish that you catch yourself.

 

Symptoms

* tingling and numbness in fingers, toes, around lips, tongue, mouth and throat;

* burning sensation or skin pain on contact with cold water;

* joint and muscle pains with muscular weakness;

* nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and/or abdominal cramps;

* headache, fatigue and fainting;

* extreme itchiness, often worsened by drinking alcohol; or

* difficulty breathing in severe cases.

Symptoms usually start 1 to 24 hours after eating a toxic fish, with the time to onset depending on quantity of the toxin consumed and individual susceptibility of the consumer.

 

Treatment

Seek medical attention.  People recovering from ciguatera fish poisoning should avoid eating warm water ocean fish for at least six months. Alcohol should also be avoided for three months as this can cause ciguatera poisoning symptoms to recur.