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Potentially Dangerous Bacterial Infections from Swimming and Shellfish: What You Should Know

You may have heard the rather alarming news about people contracting “flesh eating bacteria” while swimming in the ocean in North Carolina, Connecticut and New York. And while these cases are relatively rare, it’s important to understand how and why these infections occur.

The particular bacteria making news is called Vibrio. Vibrio bacteria live in certain coastal waters and are present in higher concentrations when water temperatures are warmer. Vibrio infections are more common in the southern United States where water temperatures are typically warmer, however, as seasonal temperatures trend higher in the northeast, cases of vibriosis, although still rare, are becoming more common.

About a dozen Vibrio species can cause human illness, known as vibriosis. The most common species causing human illness in the U.S. are Vibrio parahaemolyticus, Vibrio vulnificus, and Vibrio alginolyticus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with vibriosis become infected by consuming raw or undercooked seafood or exposing a wound to seawater.

Vibriosis, is typically characterized by watery diarrhea, usually with abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, and fever. Vibrio bacteria can also cause wound or soft tissue infections. Some Vibrio vulnificus infections lead to necrotizing fasciitis, a severe infection in which the flesh around an open wound dies. Some media reports call this kind of infection “flesh-eating bacteria,” even though necrotizing fasciitis can be caused by more than one type of bacteria.

In people with underlying medical conditions, especially liver disease, Vibrio bacteria can cause bloodstream infections characterized by fever, chills, dangerously low blood pressure, blistering skin lesions, and sometimes death.

You can reduce your risk of vibriosis by following these tips:

  • Don’t eat raw or undercooked oysters or other shellfish. Cook them before eating.
  • Always wash your hands with soap and water after handing raw shellfish.
  • Avoid contaminating cooked shellfish with raw shellfish and its juices.
  • Stay out of salt water or brackish water if you have a wound (including from a recent surgery, piercing, or tattoo), or cover your wound with a waterproof bandage if there’s a possibility it could come into contact with salt water or brackish water, raw seafood, or raw seafood juices. Brackish water is a mixture of fresh and salt water. It is often found where rivers meet the sea.
  • Wash wounds and cuts thoroughly with soap and water if they have been exposed to seawater or raw seafood or its juices.
  • If you develop a skin infection, tell your medical provider if your skin has come into contact with salt water or brackish water, raw seafood, or raw seafood juices.

Anyone can get sick from vibriosis, but you may be more likely to get an infection or severe complications if you:

  • Have liver disease, cancer, diabetes, HIV, or thalassemia
  • Receive immune-suppressing therapy for the treatment of disease
  • Take medicine to decrease stomach acid levels
  • Have had recent stomach surgery

For more information about Vibriosis, including symptoms and prevention, visit Vibrio Species Causing Vibriosis | Vibrio Illness (Vibriosis) | CDC.