Beware of Vibrio Vulnificus, the Flesh-Eating Infection Making Waves at the Beach
Do you enjoy swimming in the ocean and eating shellfish? You’ll want to think twice about indulging in those activities now that Florida health officials are warning about a flesh-eating disease that is thriving in our warm saltwater and infecting swimmers with open wounds and the people who eat shellfish from those waters. This flesh-eating bacterium is called Vibrio vulnificus and it usually occurs in warm coastal waters during the warm-weather months between May and October, when people are more likely to be at the beach. Florida’s balmy temperatures and beach-going lifestyle make it a high-risk area for the illness and it has already infected 13 people and killed three throughout the state this year and it’s only the middle of summer. Last year in Florida, 41 people were sickened and 11 died. But beyond Florida, the southern states of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas have all reported cases of Vibrio vulnificus.In fact,The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) receives approximately 90 reports of Vibrio vulnificus each year. Now that the bacterium has returned our waters, the CDC is warning Florida beachgoers to take precautions to avoid this infection. To help you handle this health hazard, MD Now Urgent Care offers the following tips to reduce your risk and treat any trouble.
Basics on the Bacteria
The Vibrio vulnificus bacteria are related to cholera, and live in warm saltwater. It is considered a flesh-eating infection because it can cause severe skin breakdown and ulceration. People with open wounds can be exposed to it through direct contact with infected seawater, shellfish, or marine wildlife. The illness can also be contracted by eating raw or undercooked seafood, especially oysters, from affected waters. In fact, the CDC reported that a 2013 outbreak of Vibrio vulnificus linked to contaminated shellfish sickened more than 100 people in 13 states. Individuals with compromised immune systems or chronic liver disease run an increased risk of infection from consuming raw or undercooked seafood, as well as from swimming in infected waters, with open wounds. If the bacteria are ingested, they can cause severe stomach pain, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting.
Symptoms of Sickness
Vibrio vulnificus leads to a severe illness that can be fatal up to 40% of the time. It also causes wound infections that are fatal nearly 20% of the time. Luckily, immediate and aggressive treatment can save the lives of those infected. People who have been exposed to the bacteria usually experience signs of sickness within a few hours to three days after exposure, but a small percentage of people can go as long as seven days until symptoms appear. The typical signs of sickness include:
- Acute illness with a swift decline in health soon after exposure
- Swelling and redness of skin on arms or legs that expands to the rest of the body
- If infected through an open wound, a sudden onset of redness, swelling, and pain at the site of the wound
- Blistering, blood-tinged skin lesions
- Fever and chills
- Decreased blood pressure and septic shock
Diagnosis and Treatment
The infection is diagnosed by a microbiologic culture of the wound, blood, or stool. It is usually treated with antibiotics, though skin infections must be treated with aggressive attention to the wound site and, in the most severe cases, may require surgery or amputation of the infected limb. If you think you’ve contracted a case of Vibrio vulnificus, immediately go to your nearest MD Now Urgent Care center. Our physicians have the antibiotics necessary to treat most cases of infection and get you on the road to recovery. Since Vibrio vulnificus infection is an acute illness, there are rarely any long-term effects following a full recovery.
Protection from the Infection
The CDC recommends taking these important precautions to avoid contracting Vibrio vulnificus:
- Avoid exposing any open wounds, cuts, or scrapes to warm saltwater or raw shellfish
- Do not go into warm saltwater with a weakened immune system or an open wound
- Anyone who goes into the ocean should rinse with clean water before heading home
- Avoid eating undercooked shellfish
- Cook shellfish completely and prevent food contamination from the juices of raw seafood
- Wear protective clothing when handling raw shellfish
- Eat shellfish immediately after cooking and promptly refrigerate leftovers