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Cucurbit Poisoning: Causes, Symptoms And Prevention Of The Rare Condition

By Sakhi Pandey

Cucurbit poisoning came into limelight recently, when two women lost all their hair - on the body as well as the scalp. Nothing unusual happened to either of them, all that was slightly peculiar was that both of them had bitter squash. The two were not related, neither did they know each other. After further research into this topic, doctors found out that they had suffered from cucurbit poisoning, i.e., they were poisoned by bitter squash.

What is Cucurbit Poisoning?

Cucurbit Poisoning or Toxic Squash Syndrome is caused due to a chemical known as cucurbitacin that is present in certain fruits and vegetables, generally pulpy ones. The presence of this chemical gives the fruit or vegetable a certain bitter flavour and is harmful to the human cells. Cucurbitacin is generally bred out, sometimes, however, cross-pollination and other factors can cause a rise in the level of cucurbitacin in the fruit or vegetable.

cucurbitacin toxicity

There were medical records of cucurbit poisoning, it has never been extremely popular though, and rarely occurs with people.

So, What Exactly Happened To The Two Women - How Was It Caused?

The two women are suspected to be the first two patients of cucurbit poisoning. Both of these women were living in France. They experienced the symptoms after having a bitter-tasting pumpkin and squash. One of them observed immense hair fall, like clumps of hair just falling off of her body and scalp after vomiting for about an hour. In the other case, the entire family suffered from extensive vomiting, nausea and diarrhoea. However, her hair was fine for until a week after she ate the bitter squash.

So, cucurbit poisoning is caused only through consumption of bitter fruits and vegetables belonging to the cucurbitaceae family. Foods that have cucurbitacin in them are - pumpkin, zucchini, cucumbers, melons and squash. Another issue with cucurbit poisoning is that one can't really differentiate between the fruits and vegetables which have a high amount of cucurbitacin and the ones in which cucurbitacin has been removed.

Symptoms of Cucurbit Poisoning:

1. If you taste a bitter-tasting fruit/vegetable that belongs to the cucurbitaceae family, immediately stop eating it. The first symptom of a food being poisonous is that it is extremely bitter.
2. If, however, the food has been consumed and one is facing symptoms similar to food poisoning. These symptoms include nausea, extreme vomiting, even diarrhea in some cases. The thing is that cucurbit poisoning probably does give you food poisoning, as cucurbitacin is harmful for human beings, therefore the human cells probably try to fight the poison by rejecting it.
3. The third, and very obvious, symptom of cucurbit poisoning is massive hair fall from all over the body. However, hair do start growing in 4-6 months.

Prevention:
One very obvious prevention is to not eat fruits and vegetables that have grown in the jungles or in the wild. It may seem more natural than the ones cultivated in the farm, but farmers remove cucurbitacin as much as possible because people would never buy or eat fruits/vegetables that are bitter.

However, wildly cultivated natural fruits/vegetables may contain high levels of cucurbitacin. The other way to prevent cucurbit poisoning is to stop eating foods that belong to the cucurbitaceae family. However, the second one is not really a solution. Otherwise, as mentioned above, there is no way one can distinguish between the poisoned food and the normal one.

There has been no evidence or data for how the two cured cucurbit poisoning, however, their hair seemed to have grown back in 6 months' time.

Therefore, cucurbit poisoning is a rare syndrome. There hasn't been a lot of research done on it but this is all that we could gather.

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    Read more about: health
    Story first published: Thursday, April 12, 2018, 19:30 [IST]
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