Most sponges are harmless and not associated with human illness. However, unprotected contact may result in an itchy rash which can develop within as little as 10 to 20 minutes or after a few hours following contact and may take several weeks to resolve1. Symptoms can include itching, burning, localized swelling, blister formation, desquamation (shedding of outer skin layers) and rarely systemic manifestations to include fever, chills, malaise, nausea, vomiting and dizziness1,10. Fortunately most skin symptoms are relatively mild and are similar to dermatitis following contact with other mildly toxic marine animals.
Skin symptoms may result from allergic, sting or spicule-induced reactions and differentiating between these potential sources is often difficult1.
Skin reactions can result from contact with organisms that colonize the sponge (sponge diver’s disease) – the principal culprits being Cnidarians (polyps), bristle worms and other Echinoderms7. There are a few species linked to severe reactions and include the Hawaiian or West Indian Fire Sponge, Tedania ignis; and the poison Bun Sponge, Fibula (or Neofibularia) nolitangere2,5,6. Symptoms and signs of contact are more likely when the area affected has pre-existing skin lesions, open wounds and when contact is made with the silica or calcium carbonate spicules embedded within the sponge’s structural tissue4,5,6.
Authors: Nicholas Bird MD, MMM
Matias Nochetto, MD
1. Auerbach, Paul. Envenomation by Aquatic Invertebrates (Ch 80). Wilderness Medicine, 6th Ed. 2012. PP 1596-1599.
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3. Kizer KW, Auerbach PS: Marine envenomations: Not just a problem of the tropics. Emerg Med Rep 1985; 6:129.
4. Russell FE, Nagabhushanam R: The venomous and poisonous marine invertebrates of the Indian Ocean. New Delhi, Oxford and IBH, 1996.
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10. Yaffee HS, Stargardtner F: Erythema multiforme from Tedania ignis. Arch Dermatol 1963; 87:601.