What Causes Fish-Handler's Disease?


What Causes Fish-Handler's Disease?

The disease has so many names because so many different outbreaks have been associated with occupations (fishermen or lobstermen), hobbies (tropical fish tanks, pet shop workers), or water sports (boating, swimming pool use). Researchers also discovered that at least two different genera of bacteria (Mycobacterium and Erysipelothrix) were the main causative infective agents of the disease. These findings added to the proliferation of names.

Causes Fish-Handler's Disease

This is an erysipeloid infection, which means it is caused by an infection which resembles erysipelas but is caused by a different organism than that which causes erysipelas. Handling and preparing fish and shellfish and many other similar activities can create small cuts and scrapes in the skin, where bacteria may enter. Developing fish-handler's disease requires deliberate contact with fish, particularly lobster and other shellfish. Fish-handler's disease occurs worldwide wherever fish and shellfish are handled.

Fish-handler's disease also occurs when cuts or scrapes in the skin become infected with Mycobacterium ssp., mainly the species marinum and fortuitum. Handling tropical fish, coral, cleaning aquariums, swimming pools, fishing, lobster catching, and many other similar activities can introduce these bacteria into cuts and scrapes.

Symptoms and Signs of Fish-Handler's Disease

  • The disease generally develops two to seven days after injury to the skin and subsequent bacterial infection.
  • A sharply defined, red-purple circular area appears and surrounds the puncture; the center usually fades, and occasionally a vesicle (blister) may appear.
  • The area of injury increases in diameter by about ½ inch per day.
  • Joint stiffness, lymph node swelling, and pain, burning, itching, and swelling at the infection site may accompany the infection.
  • Rarely, the disease may progress to produce sepsis (infection of the bloodstream) and endocarditis

Medical Care for Fish Handler's Disease

If a person develops any skin lesions (either painful or not) after handling fish or other aquatic organisms, or after swimming, boating, or cleaning fish tanks or aquariums, they should seek medical care; those with a suppressed immune system should immediately contact their doctor. Consult a doctor about treatment with available medications so that the appropriate antibiotic is given to treat the specific bacterial cause of the disease.

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Anna D Parker

Editorial Assistant

Journal of Fisheries Research