A Florida company recently recalled tuna steaks because of concerns they were contaminated with histamine and could sicken consumers. Most people aren’t familiar with the type of food poisoning known as histamine or scombroid poisoning, which comes from eating fish that haven’t been properly refrigerated. Unlike bacterial food poisoning, histamine poisoning from fish causes rather atypical symptoms.
What Causes Scombrroid Poisoning?
A compound called histidine is found naturally in fish. When histidine is exposed to air, it’s converted to a chemical called histamine. Histamine is better known as the compound that causes allergic reactions in humans. When you have a runny nose during ragweed season, it’s histamine at work. Because of this, many of the symptoms of scombroid poisoning mimic those of an allergic reaction.
Symptoms of Scombroid or Histamine Poisoning
Unlike typical bacterial food poisoning, the symptoms of scombroid poisoning begin within minutes to an hour of eating a piece of affected fish. Symptoms include skin rash, hives, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, wheezing, abdominal cramping, anxiety and headache. In more severe cases, an affected person can develop a rapid heart rate and a drop in blood pressure. Fortunately, the symptoms are usually short-lived and last only six to forty-eight hours. As you might guess, they can be successfully treated with antihistamines.
The problem with scombroid poisoning is the symptoms so closely resemble an allergic reaction that many people believe that’s what they’re experiencing – and assume they’re allergic to fish. This can lead to a lifelong avoidance of seafood.
How to Prevent Histamine Fish Poisoning
To prevent scombroid poisoning, always refrigerate fish at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or colder as soon as you buy it or catch it. When improperly refrigerated, the histidine in fish is converted to histamine by bacteria, which leads to scombroid poisoning. Keep in mind that cooking won’t destroy the histamine, so don’t count on it to save you. Only purchase seafood from reputable distributors, and be especially wary of mackerel, tuna, sardines, mahi-mahi and anchovies since they’re the most likely to cause problems.
Scombroid Poisoning From Eating Fish: The Bottom Line?
If you experience symptoms of histamine poisoning after eating fish, call your doctor. Most cases aren’t life-threatening, but people with a history of allergy or asthma can experience wheezing and a drop in blood pressure. In severe cases, doctors use medications that block histamine receptors to stop the symptoms. Even more importantly, take steps to reduce your risk of ever getting histamine poisoning in the first place.
CDC.gov. “Epidemiologic Notes and Reports Scombroid Fish Poisoning”
Food Product Design. “Tuna Recalled for High Levels of Histamine”