Environmental Dermatology

Aquatic Antagonists: Sea Cucumbers (Holothuroidea)

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In addition to their own toxins, sea cucumbers also can secrete undigested nematocysts of previously consumed cnidarians through the integument.7,10 In this case, the result of direct contact with the body wall is similar to a jellyfish sting in addition to the irritant contact dermatitis caused by the holothurin toxin.

Treatment and Prevention

Irritant dermatitis resulting from contact with a holothurin toxin is first treated with cleansing of the affected area at the time of exposure with generous amounts of seawater or preferably hot seawater and soap. Most marine toxins are inactivated by heat, but holothurin is partially heat stable. Vinegar or isopropyl alcohol also have been used.9 The result is removal of the slime containing the holothurin toxin rather than deactivation of the toxin. Although this alone may relieve symptoms, dermatitis also may be addressed with topical anesthetics, corticosteroids, or, if a severe reaction has occurred, systemic steroids.9

Conjunctivitis should be addressed with copious irrigation with tap water and topical anesthesia. Following proper irrigation, providers may choose to follow up with fluorescein staining to rule out corneal injury.10

The dermatologic effects of holothurin toxins can be prevented with the use of gloves and diving masks or goggles. Proper protective wear should be utilized not only when directly handling sea cucumbers but also when swimming in water where sea cucumbers may be present. Systemic toxicity can be prevented by proper cooking, as holothurin toxins are only partially heat resistant and also are hydrolyzed into nontoxic products by gastric acid. Additionally, the species of the sea cucumber should be confirmed prior to consumption, as edible species are known to contain less toxin.1

Conclusion

Although sea cucumbers have ecologic, culinary, and pharmaceutical value, they also can pose a threat to both humans and wildlife. The holothurin toxins produced by sea cucumbers cause a painful contact dermatitis and can lead to conjunctivitis and even blindness following eye exposure. Although the toxin is broken down into nontoxic metabolites by gastric acid, large amounts of potent variants can induce systemic effects. Individuals who come in contact with sea cucumbers, such as fishermen and divers, should utilize proper protection including gloves and protective eyewear.

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