First aid for victims of paralytic shellfish poisoning

What should I do if I think that I, or someone in my family, have paralytic shellfish poisoning?

PSP is a public health emergency. Medical care in a hospital may be needed to support an ill person until the toxin has worn off. Call 911 or have someone take you to the emergency room.

What is paralytic shellfish poisoning?

Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) is caused by a poison produced by small organisms called dinoflagellates. Clams, mussels, oysters, snails, scallops, and barnacles ingest these organisms while feeding, and the poison is stored in their bodies. This toxin has been found in these seafoods every month of the year, and butter clams have been known to store the toxin for up to two years. One of the highest concentrations of PSP in the world is reported to be in the shellfish in southeast Alaska.

Some people have died after eating just one clam or mussel, others after eating many—each with a small amount of poison. You cannot tell whether the dinoflagellates are present by looking at the water with your naked eye. No simple, reliable test for PSP exists, and most beaches in Alaska are not tested. If you are not sure the seafood is toxin-free, avoid eating it if it is from an area with a high incidence of PSP.

Signs and symptoms of PSP most often occur within 10 to 30 minutes after eating affected seafood. Problems can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and tingling or burning lips, gums, tongue, face, neck, arms, legs, and toes. Later problems may include shortness of breath, dry mouth, a choking feeling, confused or slurred speech, and lack of coordination.

If symptoms have appeared, get the victim to a medical facility, fast.

U.S. Coast Guard phone numbers

From anywhere in Alaska except Juneau, Douglas, and Kodiak (800) 478-5555
In Juneau and Douglas 463-2000
In Kodiak 487-5888

The U.S. Coast Guard performs rescues. If someone has PSP symptoms and needs to be transported by helicopter or boat, call the Rescue Coordination Centers at the numbers above.

Emergency treatment for PSP victims

If you think someone has PSP, bring them to the nearest medical facility. Call 911 or take the victim to the emergency room.

There is no medication available to treat PSP. The only treatment for severe cases is the use of a mechanical respirator and oxygen. Seek medical care as quickly as possible. Performing CPR may help while you're on the way. Below are links to resources on learning CPR.

If you transport the person to a medical facility yourself and can safely do so on the way, contact the Coast Guard or a physician for further advice.

First aid and CPR training

Two sources of information for CPR are:

For information on training in your area of Alaska, inquire at your local fire department or ambulance service or contact:

Alaska Emergency Medical Services Program
PO Box 110616
Juneau, Alaska 99811-0616
(907) 465-3140