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What is Tetrodotoxin?

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  • Written By: K.C. Bruning
  • Edited By: John Allen
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  • Last Modified Date: 17 September 2016
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Tetrodotoxin, also known as tetrodox, is an extremely strong neurotoxin. It is colloquially known as zombie powder, particularly in the voodoo and Haitian cultures. The toxin is several times more potent than cyanide. It can be found in several kinds of fish, though the most common cases of human poisoning result from eating the flesh of the pufferfish. Tetrodotoxin affects the nervous system by preventing it to send electrical impulses throughout the body which, depending on the amount present in the body, can cause anything from gastrointestinal illness to death.

In addition to the pufferfish, there are a number of other sea animals that carry tetrodotoxin. They include triggerfish, mola, porcupinefish, and ocean sunfish. This order of fish is called Tetraodontiformes and lends the toxin its name. Tetrodotoxin has also been found in the blue-ringed octopus and the rough-skinned newt. These animals don’t produce the toxin, but rather carry the symbiotic, or mutually beneficial, bacteria that lead to its growth.

Tetrodotoxin damages the normal functioning of the nervous system. It typically manifests itself in neurologic and gastrointestinal problems. If the poisoning is severe, it can cause low blood pressure and dysrhythmias, which is a lack of electrical impulses to the heart. It is fatal if it stops the communication of electrical impulses to the brain.

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Some of the symptoms of tetrodotoxin poisoning include nausea, vomiting, muscle spasms, and weakness which can lead to paralysis. Breathing difficulties are also common signs of poisoning. There can also be a tingling or numbness known as oral paresthesias which starts in the mouth and can lead to the limbs. Cranial nerve dysfunction, a severe symptom, affects the functioning of the brain.

Despite the risk involved, several people still get tetrodotoxin poisoning from eating improperly prepared pufferfish, also known as fugu, every year. Even when there is immediate treatment, about half of these poisonings are usually fatal. Natural predators of pufferfish and other sea animals that carry the toxin are usually kept away by the bright colors of these creatures, which serve as a natural warning system.

As there is no antidote for tetrodotoxin, a severe case of poisoning will inevitably lead to death. The toxin can kill in as quickly as 20 minutes, though a typical range is from four to six hours. Some individuals have survived the poisoning by being put on life-support and having the remaining toxin removed from the stomach with charcoal lavage, which absorbs the poison.

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ceilingcat
Post 3

@starrynight - Do you ever watch the show Bones? The only reason I even know what tetrodotoxin is is because they featured it on an episode a few seasons back. Tetrodotoxin voodoo actually came up in the episode!

The murder victim had been killed with tetrodotoxin and they spent the whole episode trying to figure out who did it. A professor who studied voodoo was actually implicated first because he had ordered some of the powder to study.

The professor turned out not to be the murderer. I won't ruin the ending for you though, but I thought it was interesting that Bones featured this on an episode.

starrynight
Post 2

@SZapper - I'm with you. However it wasn't the death by pufferfish that interested me in this article but the mention of tetrodotoxin zombies! I'm not quite sure how a neurotoxin that either gives you a stomach ache or kills you can turn a person into a zombie but I'm intriqued!

SZapper
Post 1

After reading this article I feel certain I will never eat pufferfish! I know some people like to take risks but this just seems like too much. There is no fish tasty enough to risk death by tetrodotoxin.

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