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Puffer Fish Sushi: How Fugu Kills You

This author enjoys researching different foods, trying out new recipes, and sharing her discoveries with her readers.

Death by Blowfish

When I think of blowfish or puffer fish—also known as fugu (meaning river pig) in Japan—beautiful revenge comes to mind. When prepared improperly, eating blowfish sushi can (and does) kill humans. This little creature is possibly the one food that kills humans only after humans have already killed it.

What Is Tetrodotoxin?

Tetrodotoxin (TTX) is one of the most powerful neurotoxins found anywhere in the world. When put to use by the pufferfish, the substance is employed to keep predators away while it is alive and apparently to exact revenge upon humans who dine at the fugu sushi table following its demise. In its fugu sushi state, the blowfish can have enough of the neurotoxin left in its little (improperly) filleted body to kill more than 30 full-sized people, including you.

The Fugu Puffer Fish

Blowfish Isn't Really Full of Hot Air

The blowfish is known for its striking ability to poof up like a big spiky hot-air balloon during a crisis. But it isn't filling itself up with hot air at all! What causes that lean little fish to become its bulbous alter ego? Tetrodotoxin, that's what.

It's a Japanese Delicacy

Safe Fugu Is All About the Chef

When in Japan, be prepared to hear about the wonderful attributes of the pufferfish. To some Japanese people, when—theoretically—prepared properly, no other food item is held in such high esteem as fugu sushi. People will pay a ton of cash to get a tiny nibble of the stuff, and only because it is said to be the most delicious of any fish. However, before you decide to partake in this amazing sushi, you might want to ask for an introduction to the chef who will be preparing it.

Why You Want to Meet the Fugu Sushi Chef

You see, chefs who prepare and serve fugu sushi must be licensed and specially trained in the ways of the puffer fish's particular preparation techniques. These elite few chefs undergo a rigid learning program to fully understand how to remove the parts of the puffer fish's body—most importantly the liver and ovaries—that house the tetrodotoxin.

Before serving you the dish, the chef is required to taste the sushi to make certain it is safe for you to consume. You may run across a chef who does not have the qualifications for such precision work but prepares it anyway. So, knowing your chef isn't having a bad day or that he has the right credentials can, in this case, literally be a matter of life and a horrible death by poisoning.

When a Sushi Chef Has a Bad Day

Your Sushi Chef Holds Your Life in His Hands

Let's just say that the sushi chef who will be filleting and serving your fugu tonight has had a very bad day or is a newly trained chef, and he neglects to remove every bit of the toxic-rich organs. Next, he serves this sushi to you on a beautifully arranged platter. Then, you gracefully grip the fugu with the tips of your chopsticks, carefully dipping it into the lovely soy sauce and wasabi so as not to drop even a flake.

Now, you pop the fish into your mouth and swallow it down, happily discovering for yourself that everything wonderful said about puffer fish sushi is true! However, what you will also discover is that the neurotoxin has already begun its deadly process.

A Frightening Fact About Puffer Fish Poisoning

The tetrodotoxin (poison) found in pufferfish is measured as being 1,200 times more deadly than cyanide. Making an exposure equal to the size of a pinhead enough to kill you.

Fugu Sushi Poisoning

What Happens Once Fugu Tetrodotoxin Gets Consumed

The very moment you consume tainted puffer fish, the tetrodotoxin poison goes to work at flipping "off" the switch that is your life. It immediately attacks the nervous system in your body, which prevents your neurons from communicating with each other and more importantly with your brain. The most horrifying and deadly component of the neurotoxin is that it impedes the body's muscle function; putting an emphatic halt to your muscles' ability to work.

Fugu sushi tray

Fugu sushi tray

What Are the Stages of Blowfish Poisoning?

  • That tingling sensation felt on the tongue and in the mouth is due to the poison killing off your neurotransmitters' ability to function correctly.
  • The dizziness, nausea, headache and vomiting are telling you that your body is in big trouble here, and the next hour(s) is going to be the worst of your existence.
  • Your difficulty with breathing is just a part of the total loss of all motor functions along with autonomic functions—like heart rate, digestion, and other involuntary functions—that you will endure over the next few hours.
  • Your body becomes totally paralyzed. Unbearable as the paralysis may seem, knowing you will be fully conscience for this part of the battle adds a Nightmare On Elm Street quality to the situation. Retaining complete awareness that you are dying makes for one unmeasurable horror factor in my book.
  • Because you can no longer breathe for yourself, having immediate access to a respirator is your only hope and a thinly veiled one at that.
  • You are bound to die, as the tetrodotoxin your sushi chef left behind in that delicately prepared fugu has no known antidote.

5 Scientific Facts About Puffer Fish

Tiger Puffer (Takifugu rubripes)

This little fish is considered to be the most toxic of the twenty-five species of fugu. The toxin it harbors, tetrodotoxin (or tetrodoxin), is named for Tetraodontiformes, the order of fish that includes fugu.

1. Who Is at the Most Risk of Dying From Puffer Fish Poisoning?

People who think the thrill of eating sushi should equal the rush found in engaging in unarmed hand-to-hand combat with a pride of African lions. Oh, and the sushi chefs who are mandated to taste it before serving it.

2. Medical Cause of Death From Puffer Fish Poisoning

Respiratory paralysis, asphyxiation.

3. How Lethal Is the Poison in Fugu?

Very high! More than 60% of all fugu poisonings will end in death. After the toxin has been consumed, you have less than sixty minutes to get respiratory treatment which is your only hope in surviving the effects of this powerful poison.

4. How Long Does It Take for Puffer Fish Poison to Kill You?

Anywhere from 20 minutes to 24 hours.

5. How Many People Die From Puffer Fish Sushi Yearly?

More than 100 people die annually from puffer fish poisoning. Almost all result from consuming the world's most deadly delicacy. Throughout history, thousands have met their demise from fugu poisoning, primarily in Japan and China where it is more readily found in sushi restaurants.