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Ciguatera Fish Poisoning
(Ciguatera Toxin)

Ciguatera Fish Poisoning (Toxin) Definition

  • Ciguatera is a foodborn illness (food poisoning) caused by eating fish that is contaminated by ciguatera toxin. Ciguatera toxin is a heat-stable lipid soluble compound, produced by dinoflagellates and concentrated in fish organs, that can cause nausea, pain, cardiac, and neurological symptoms in humans when ingested.
  • The toxin may be found concentrated in large reef fish, most commonly barracuda, grouper, red snapper, eel, amberjack, sea bass, and Spanish mackerel.
  • These fish live in coral reef waters and accumulate the toxin when they eat smaller reef fish which feed on the dinoflagellates.
  • The area of concern include the Caribbean Sea, Hawaii, and coastal Central America.
  • With fish from ciguatera endemic areas being shipped nationwide, poisonings can potentially occur in any areas in the United States.
  • Ciguatera toxin tends to accumulate in large predator fish (weight over 2 Kg or about 4.5 lbs), such as the barracuda and other carnivorous reef fish, because they eat other fish that consume toxin-producing algae (dinoflagellates), which live in coral reef waters. The toxin has highest concentrations in fish visceral and sex organs.
  • Ciguatera toxin is harmless to fish, but poisonous to humans.
  • The toxin is odorless and tasteless, and cooking does not destroy the toxin.
  • Eating ciguatera-contaminated tropical or subtropical fish is the main way that humans are exposed to the toxin.
  • The toxin activates voltage-dependent sodium channels causing symptoms in human (and other mammals) gastrointestinal, cardiac, and nerve tissues.
  • There are about 50,000 reported poisonings worldwide per year, but rarely cause death; children have more severe symptoms (see below).
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/30/2016

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Ciguatera poisoning is the most common nonbacterial, fish-borne poisoning in the United States.

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