Consuming food that contains too much histamine causes histamine poisoning. It affects different products, of which fish is the most common one. It is the most frequent form of fish poisoning in the world, also known as scombrotoxic fish poisoning.
Histamine poisoning is a not very well known process caused by microbes. It usually produces a quick response that is similar to an allergic reaction. The most frequent symptoms are slight arterial hypotension, itchiness, headache, rash and facial edema. These symptoms appear between some minutes and several hours, not more than three, after ingestion. All symptoms normally disappear from 12 to 24 hours later without any other consequences. In more serious cases, cramps, nausea without vomiting or diarrhoea and respiratory symptoms may appear. When affected people go to the doctor, they usually link their symptoms to the food they have eaten due to its quick effects.
Histamine is present in many foods, such as fish, cheese, wine or sausages, but it needs to reach certain concentrations to produce poisoning. The most frequently involved fish species are tuna fish, swordfish, sardines, mackerel, herring and anchovies or boquerón. All of them are frequently consumed in Spain, fresh as well as canned.
The origin of this form of poisoning is bacterial decomposition of the fish muscle after capture. When the muscle begins to be altered it liberates an amino acid, hisitidine. This amino acid is then used by microorganisms contaminating the fish, normally intestinal bacteria acting at temperatures above 15ºC, that produce an accumulation of histamine.
Two circumstances, then, have to occur at once: not refrigerating the fish right away, which allows the muscle fibres to be altered, and defective handling, which leads to contamination by intestinal bacteria.
But, how are outbreaks due to eating canned fish justified? Simply because histamine resists the high temperatures necessary for sterilization.
It is clear then that preventing the alteration is theoretically easy, and that it may be prevented completely by adequate handling and storing. What consumers cannot do is detect histamine once the problem has been generated.
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