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June 10, 2008 - 7:30am
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Scombroid poisoning (also called histamine poisoning) is caused by the ingestion of foods that contain high levels of histamine and possibly other vasoactive amines and compounds. Histamine and other amines are formed by the growth of certain bacteria and the subsequent action of their decarboxylase enzymes either during the production of a product such as Swiss cheese or by spoilage of foods such as fishery products, particularly tuna or mahi mahi. However, any food that contains the appropriate amino acids and is subjected to certain bacterial contamination and growth may lead to scombroid poisoning when ingested.

What are the symptoms of scrombroid poisoning?

Initial symptoms may include a tingling or burning sensation in the mouth, a rash on the upper body and a drop in blood pressure. Frequently, headaches and itching of the skin are encountered. The symptoms may progress to nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea and may require hospitalization, particularly in the case of elderly or impaired patients. The onset of intoxication symptoms is rapid, ranging from immediate to 30 minutes. The duration of the illness is usually 3 hours, but may last several days.

How is scrombroid poisoning diagnosed?

Diagnosis of the illness is usually based on the patient's symptoms, time of onset, and the effect of treatment with antihistamine medication. The suspected food must be analyzed within a few hours for elevated levels of histamine to confirm a diagnosis.

What foods are associated with scrombroid poisoning?

Fishery products that have been implicated in scombroid poisoning include the tunas (e.g., skipjack and yellowfin), mahi mahi, bluefish, sardines, mackerel, amberjack, and abalone. Many other products also have caused the toxic effects. The primary cheese involved in intoxication has been Swiss cheese. The toxin forms in a food when certain bacteria are present and time and temperature permit their growth. Distribution of the toxin within an individual fish fillet or between cans in a case lot can be uneven, with some sections of a product causing illnesses and others not. Neither cooking, canning, or freezing reduces the toxic effect. Common sensory examination by the consumer cannot ensure the absence or presence of the toxin. Chemical testing is the only reliable test for evaluation of a product.

How common is scrombroid poisoning?

Scombroid poisoning remains one of the most common forms of fish poisoning in the United States. Even so, incidents of poisoning often go unreported because of the lack of required reporting, a lack of information by some medical personnel, and confusion with the symptoms of other illnesses. Difficulties with underreporting are a worldwide problem. Since 1978, two actions by FDA have reduced the frequency of intoxication caused by specific products. A defect action level for histamine in canned tuna resulted in increased industry quality control. Secondly, blacklisting of mahi mahi reduced the level of fish imported to the United States.

Who is susceptible to scrombroid poisoning?

All humans are susceptible to scombroid poisoning; however, the symptoms can be severe for the elderly and for those taking medications such as isoniazid. Because of the worldwide network for harvesting, processing, and distributing fishery products, the impact of the problem is not limited to specific geographical areas of the United States or consumption pattern. These foods are sold for use in homes, schools, hospitals, and restaurants as fresh, frozen, or processed products.


Food and Drug Administration

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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