Ciguatera...Why the silence?

by: Chef Tim Tibbitt

Food For Thought

Since moving back to the Bahamas six years ago, I have heard the whispers in closed circles about fish poisoning. Now recently, quite a few friends of mine have contracted the disease. What I don't understand is why so little is done locally to inform the public as to the species to avoid or ways to protect oneself from getting this horrible fate. So, by request of some of my friends who are currently suffering from this, here are some facts about ciguatera.

Ciguatera is a foodborne illness caused by eating certain reef fish whose flesh is contaminated with toxins originally produced by dinoflagellates such as Gambierdiscus toxicus which live in tropical and subtropical waters. These dinoflagellates adhere to coral, algae and seaweed, where they are eaten by herbivorous fish whom in turn are eaten by larger carnivorous fish. In this way, the toxins move up the food chain and bioaccumulate. Gambierdiscus toxicus is the primary dinoflagellate responsible for the production of a number of similar toxins that cause ciguatera. These toxins include ciguatoxin, maitotoxin, scaritoxin and palytoxin. Predator species near the top of the food chain in tropical and subtropical waters, such as barracudas, reef snappers, moray eels, parrotfishes, groupers, triggerfishes (turbot) and amberjacks, are most likely to cause ciguatera poisoning, although many other species cause occasional outbreaks of toxicity. Ciguatoxin is odourless, tasteless and very heat-resistant, so ciguatoxin-laden fish cannot be detoxified by conventional cooking.

Hallmark symptoms of ciguatera in humans include gastrointestinal and neurological effects. Gastrointestinal symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, usually followed by neurological symptoms such as headaches, muscle aches, paresthesia, numbness, ataxia, vertigo, and hallucinations. Severe cases of ciguatera can also result in cold allodynia, which is a burning sensation on contact with cold. Neurological symptoms can persist and ciguatera poisoning is occasionally misdiagnosed as multiple sclerosis.

Dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse) and other ciguatera symptoms have developed in otherwise healthy males and females following sexual intercourse with partners suffering ciguatera poisoning, signifying that the toxin may be sexually transmitted. Diarrhea and facial rashes have been reported in breastfed infants of poisoned mothers, suggesting that ciguatera toxins migrate into breast milk.

The symptoms can last from weeks to years, and in extreme cases as long as 20 years, often leading to long-term disability. Most people do recover slowly over time. Often patients recover, but symptoms then reappear. Such relapses can be triggered by consumption of nuts, seeds, alcohol, fish or fish-containing products, chicken or eggs, or by exposure to fumes such as those of bleach and other chemicals. Exercise is also a possible trigger.

Scientific detection

Currently, multiple laboratory methods are available to detect ciguatoxins, including liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LCMS), receptor binding assays, and neuroblastoma assays). Although testing is possible, in most cases, LCMS is insufficient to detect clinically relevant concentrations of ciguatoxin in crude extracts of fish.

' Folk'  detection

In Northern Australia, where ciguatera is a common problem, two different folk science methods are widely believed to detect whether fish harbor significant ciguatoxin. The first method is that flies will not land on contaminated fish. The second is that cats display symptoms after eating contaminated fish. A third, less common testing method involves putting a silver coin under the scales of the suspect fish. Only if the coin turns black, is it contaminated. It is not known whether any of these tests produce accurate results.

On Grand Cayman Island the locals will test barracuda by placing a piece of the fish on the ground and allowing ants to crawl on it. If the ants continue to move then the fish is safe to eat.

I do not recommend any of these tests as being accurate or safe.

There is no effective treatment or antidote for ciguatera poisoning. The mainstay of treatment is supportive care. There is some evidence that calcium channel blocker type drugs such as Nifedipine and Verapamil are effective in treating some of the symptoms that remain after the initial sickness passes, such as poor circulation and shooting pains through the chest. These symptoms are due to the cramping of arterial walls caused by maitotoxin. Ciguatoxin lowers the threshold for opening voltage-gated sodium channels in synapses of the nervous system. Opening a sodium channel causes depolarization, which could sequentially cause paralysis, heart contraction, and changing the senses of hearing and cold. Nifedipine is a calcium channel blocker. Some medications such as Amitriptyline may reduce some symptoms, such as fatigue and paresthesia, although benefit does not occur in every case. Steroids and vitamin supplements support the body's recovery rather than directly reducing toxin effects.

Mannitol was once used for poisoning after one study reported symptom reversal. Follow-up studies in animals and case reports in humans also found benefit from mannitol. However, a randomized, double-blind clinical trial found no difference between mannitol and normal saline, and based on this result, mannitol is no longer recommended.

Due to the limited habitats of ciguatoxin-producing microorganisms, ciguatera is common in only subtropical and tropical waters, particularly the Pacific and Caribbean, and usually is associated with fish caught in tropical reef waters. Ciguatoxin is found in over 400 species of reef fish. Avoiding consumption of all reef fish (any fish living in warm tropical waters) is the only sure way to avoid exposure. Imported fish served in restaurants may contain the toxin and produce illness that often goes unexplained by physicians unfamiliar with the symptoms of a tropical toxin. Ciguatoxin can also occur in farm-raised salmon. Furthermore, species substitution, labeling a reef fish as a non-reef fish at restaurants and retail, can complicate efforts by consumers to avoid ciguatera.

I have seen the worst this poisoning can give. It's a horrible disease that I wouldn't wish on anyone. It would be beneficial for the Ministry of Health to release information to people on the dangers of this disease. However, we face a double-edged sword. Most of the fish species that carry the toxins are the traditional fish species of the Bahamian diet and are the only source of income for some families as fishing the reef is a way of life here. Since there is no way to know in advance, your best way to stay safe is to avoid reef fish. However, if you don't want to do that, I suggest staying away from boiling or 'stewing'  the bones and heads of reef fish as the toxins would be housed in the spinal system and bones as well as the digestive system that usually gets thrown away. I for one will continue to eat Pelagic species instead. Remember, there's more to food than cooking and eating.

posted on: Sunday, March 01, 2015 12:27 AM


I have had Ciguatera for two years now .. Initial symptoms of Severe Nausea , Extreme Dental Pain , Neck Siezed Rigid .. Followed by hard bloated belly & constant urinary infections , uncomfortable dry eyes , hypersomnulance .. The on going symptoms have included ; cluster headaches / Trigeminal neuralgia , migrains , blurred vision , jaw pain, metallic taste , severe cramping of legs @ night preventing sleep , continued hypersomnulance , sweating , overwhelming fatigue , lack of concentration & mental clarity , depression .. Most recently after foolishly drinking a very small amount of alcohol I had very frightening coronary episode followed by a reoccurance of Ciguatera symptoms ..
Triggers which seem to affect a reoccurance in me include ; alcohol , flying , vigorous exercise , eggs , nuts , chocolate , coffee , cheese , wholemeal grains , rice , bleach fumes , too many seedy fruits (tomatoes etc) , too much salt , too many pulses or legumes .. Of course I avoid seafood ..

Patrik Andersson posted on: Thursday, October 16, 2014 3:23 PM


This is a very good informative article about Ciguatera. I had myself the bad luck to encounter the poison 2012 when I was on a business trip to HongKong.. it had a very quick rapid development and in one way I was lucky to be able to get back home to Europe but on the other hand maybe the aftermath for me would have been different since they know more about this then back in NL.. it took almost 3 weeks for the doctors to figure out what I had. Today two and a half year later, I am still avoiding fish and other food sources which can contain fish protein. Each and every time I try to do some jogging, I getting back sticking and numbness feeling in face and arms/ hands.
I too though it was very little written about Ciguatera and that’s why I dedicated some time to start spreading the word and trying to create an awareness about CFP.
Please check this Facebook page out and don’t hesitate to ask me any questions you might have as well and I will try my best to guide and help for further information.
With regards

Rick Smith posted on: Monday, October 06, 2014 11:03 PM


Thanks for taking the time to write such an informative well written article.

Zardiw posted on: Friday, August 22, 2014 11:06 PM


I've read that vitamin B-12 helps.
And it would seem to me that drinking a large glass of water with activated charcoal after eating reef fish would help prevent getting sick.

Gina Lawrence posted on: Thursday, July 24, 2014 2:39 PM


My brother found out he had Ciguatera last November. He unfortunately did not get to a hospital soon enough to draw out the toxin immediately and is now living with it. And it's not good. He's had an episode that has lasted weeks. He's lost 16lbs, and seems to be getting worse. Nothing helps. He's changed his diet completely to avoid oils, nuts and every kind of food listed online. If anyone can offer any advice to help, please contact me. We're desperate :(

Wayne Allen posted on: Friday, July 11, 2014 5:23 PM


Chef Tibbitt; Re: Ciguatera I have recently read your article on Ciguatera. Sometime in the early seventies,the Universities of Miami and Hawaii conducted joint summer research studies on this problem. I recall that the studies revealed that Ciguatera is a sort of microbe which grows on certain reefs. The small fish eat the Ciguatera, and the larger fish eat the small infected fish. The Ciguatera does not harm the fish, but it lodges in their flesh. Therefore, the more ravenous the larger fish such as Barrucada are, the more of the smaller Cigatera infected fish will be eaten. Ciguatera has no adverse effect on the fish, but it causes muscle failure in humans who eat the Ciguatera infected fish, small or large. During that study, the Universities conducted surveys of reefs in The Bahamas and in Hawaii and identified the reefs which were infected. If Fishermen avoid taking fish from the infected reefs, it is highly unlikely that anyone will get poisoned by Ciguatera. The Universities had also developed a test to detect Ciguatera. The cost at that time was $18.00 per test. They may have developed a better and less expensive test by now. There were two small chemical laboritiys in Freeport, both are now closed. They were located on Queens Highway opposite Dolly Madision and the other was opposite Dolly's parking lot. I do not recall the name of one of the products which I purchased and carried to West Palm Beach where it was administered to a friend of mine who had been bedridden for nine months due to Ciguatera poisoning. It helped him to recover. This chemical had nothing to do with Ciguatera, but it was discovered by the Japanese that it was effective on Ciguatera. Japan is the country that is most adversely affected by Ciguatera.

Jeormee posted on: Monday, July 07, 2014 11:27 AM


Tim Tibbitt, My father is in the hospital right now at Princess Margaret hospital in the Bahamas with ciguatera, but coming back to the states soon. Thank you for the info.

Tandi Wall posted on: Wednesday, March 05, 2014 4:44 PM


Thank you for this well written article. I have lived with Ciguatera since 2007, when I got it on my honeymoon. It has been 7 years and the pain is still there, and there are days I can't hardly move. This is serious people! I try my best to bring awareness to people as much as I can. Thank you.

John posted on: Monday, March 03, 2014 6:23 PM


The positive info lays in the fact that you are taking a risk eating any reef fish in the tropics. Take it from someone who made that mistake in tonga over three years ago and is still symptomatic.

posted on: Wednesday, December 04, 2013 4:29 PM


The only positive information I got from this is that reef fish
contaminated with ciguatera can be used as an effective ant killer.

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