Ciguatera Poisoning: Symptoms, Treatment and More

It happens when you least expect it. “Man, that fish sandwich was delicious!” Next thing you know, your muscles are on fire and the cold floor feels like it’s on fire. Wait, what? Yes, these are some of the initial signs of ciguatera poisoning. Cold surfaces feel like they’re on fire and your body feels like you just did 12 hours in the gym. What’s going on?

Ciguatera poisoning is a type of food poisoning caused by eating certain types of tropical and subtropical fish that have been contaminated with toxins produced by a specific form of microalgae called Gambierdiscus toxicus. This form of plankton produces a substance called ciguatoxin that is harmful to the human nervous system.

Amberjack have been known to carry the ciguatera toxin on occasion.

The fish known to carry ciguatera are usually reef-dwelling fish that live in warm, shallow waters, including barracuda, grouper, red snapper, sea bass and triggerfish. These fish can be contaminated by eating smaller fish that have ingested the microalgae and the toxins can accumulate in their flesh over time.

It is important to note that not all individuals of these species will carry the toxin and that some individuals of other species may also carry the toxin. It is always best to check with local authorities or a knowledgeable fishmonger before purchasing and consuming tropical fish.

Ciguatera poisoning is most commonly found in tropical and subtropical regions, where the conditions are ideal for the growth of the microalgae that produce the ciguatoxins. When a person consumes contaminated fish, the ciguatoxins can cause a range of symptoms. These can include gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, as well as tingling or numbness in the mouth, hands and feet. In addition to these standard symptoms, ciguatera poisoning also has some other wild symptoms attached to it that include an odd reversal of hot and cold sensations as well as a weird disconnect between the sense of touch and feel that can go on for months after infection. In severe cases, symptoms can also include difficulty breathing, irregular heartbeat and paralysis.

People who come down with ciguatera poisoning often report itchy hands and feet that turn a bright red color. The itching sensation has been described as “unbearable” and, by some reports, is exacerbated by the consumption of alcohol. Victims of this condition have also reported symptoms that seem cured, then reappear years later.

Cigutatera poisoning cause
Cigutatera poisoning is caused by a toxin produced by microscopic algae such as the ones seen here.


In addition to reef-dwelling snapper and grouper, do barracuda carry ciguatera? It is possible for barracuda to carry the ciguatera toxin, but it is not always the case. While barracuda are known to feed on a wide variety of prey, including other fish, it is not clear how commonly they may be exposed to the ciguatera toxin. In general, it is recommended to avoid eating barracuda or any other fish that may be contaminated with toxins, as the effects of ciguatera can be severe and even life-threatening in some cases. In some regions, there have been reports of local populations developing an immunity to ciguatera but this assertion, while rumored, has never been scientifically verified.

Barracuda Ciguatera Poisoning
Barracuda have also been known to carry this potentially deadly toxin, especially bigger specimens that have spent their life living and feeding around an infected reef system.

Can ciguatera poisoning be fatal to humans? Yes, ciguatera poisoning can be fatal to humans. In severe cases, it can cause difficulty breathing and heart failure, which can lead to death. However, death from ciguatera poisoning is relatively rare and most people recover fully with proper medical treatment.

Is there a treatment or established cure for ciguatera poisoning? There is no specific treatment for a ciguatera infection, but symptoms can often be managed with medications and other supportive care measures. This can include medications to control nausea and vomiting, as well as fluids and electrolytes to prevent dehydration. In severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary to provide supportive care and monitor the patient’s condition. Ultimately, the best way to avoid the risk of getting this dreaded condition is to avoid eating potentially contaminated fish as this can make the condition worse or lead to further complications.

One thing is for sure, if ciguatera poisoning goes untreated the symptoms can get worse and linger for months or even years. If you suspect that you have ciguatera poisoning, you should seek medical attention immediately.