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Foods -- Seafood

What is ciguatera?

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Ciguatera is a type of food poisoning associated with tropical waters and caused by the consumption of certain marine species that harbor ciguatera toxin. Ciguatoxic fish are not inherently toxic. The poisonous substance originates in certain species of microplankton or dinoflagellates. Small fish feeding on these organisms become toxic; they, in turn, are eaten by larger fish, and in time the larger fish become toxic. Thus the toxin is passed up the food chain into the large predatory fish often favored by humans. Toxic fish cannot be detected by appearance, taste, or smell, and cooking does not inactivate the toxin. The problem is confined to tropical reef waters, and even within this region the occurrence is unpredictable. Vacationers and inexperienced recreational fishermen should use care in areas where ciguatera is prevalent.

The symptoms of ciguatera begin within 6 hours after contaminated food is eaten. They include nausea, cramping, and vomiting, followed by neurological discomforts such as headache, flushing, and a tingling or a numb sensation on the lips, tongue, and mouth. In more severe cases, the most definitive symptom is a cold-to-hot sensory reversal so that cold objects feel hot and hot objects feel cold.

SOURCE: Donn Ward, Ph.D., Joyce Taylor, and David Green, Ph.D., Department of Food Science, NC State University

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