Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Ciguatera and Sex

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Ciguatera fish poisoning involves a large number of tropical and semitropical bottom-feeding fish that dine on plants or smaller fish that have accumulated toxins from certain microscopic dinoflagellates. Therefore, the larger the fish, the greater the toxicity. The ciguatoxin-carrying fish most commonly ingested include the barracuda, jack, grouper, and snapper. Symptoms, which usually begin 15 to 30 minutes after the victim eats the contaminated fish, include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tongue and throat numbness, tooth pain, difficulty walking, blurred vision, skin rash, itching, tearing of the eyes, weakness, twitching muscles, incoordination, difficulty sleeping, and occasional difficulty in breathing. A classic sign of ciguatera intoxication is the reversal of hot and cold sensation (hot liquids seem cold and vice versa), which may reflect general hypersensitivity to temperature. Unfortunately, the symptoms persist in varying severity for weeks to months. Victims can become severely ill, with heart problems, low blood pressure, deficiencies of the central and peripheral nervous systems, and generalized collapse. Anyone who displays symptoms of ciguatera fish poisoning should be seen promptly by a physician.

It was reported this spring that ciguatera fish poisoning has been linked to pain during sexual intercourse. Despite the sensational coverage that this announcement received by the press, the phenomenon has been known for quite some time. It is indeed a fact that a person affected by ciguatera fish poisoning may suffer symptoms of pain during sex. These symptoms include painful ejaculation in men, and a burning sensation during and after (for up to 3 hours) intercourse. What was interesting about this most recent report, which was generated by observations made in North Carolina, was quantification of the duration of the uncomfortable symptoms. One male reported that his symptoms lasted a week, and two of the women said that they were affected for a month. The fish implicated in this particular cluster of cases was amberjack.

Treatment for ciguatera fish poisoning is for the most part supportive, although certain drugs are beginning to prove useful for aspects of the syndrome. An example is intravenous mannitol for abnormal nervous system behavior or abnormal heart rhythms. These therapies must be undertaken by a physician. Prochlorperazine may be useful for vomiting; hydroxyzine or cool showers may be useful for itching. There are chemical tests (such as Cigua-Check® Fish Poison Test Kit) to determine the presence of ciguatoxins in fish, but there is not yet a specific antidote.

Preview the Annual Meeting of the Wilderness Medical Society, which will be held in Snowmass, Colorado July 24-29, 2009.

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Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.

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