It’s a horrible fate: You take a cool dip in the ocean and become infected with flesh-eating bacteria.
Climate change is making this terrifying scenario more common in the northern part of the United States, one infectious disease expert says.
These infections are caused by Vibrio vulnificus bacteria. There are about 80,000 such infections each year in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most infections resolve within a few days, but there are about 500 hospitalizations and 100 deaths each year due to such infections.
There are a number of ways to protect yourself, according to David Cennimo, an infectious disease expert at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
Vibrio bacteria can get into the body through open wounds. If you have any, it’s best to stay out of the water, especially brackish water. Cover the wound with a waterproof bandage if it’s likely to come into contact with water or raw seafood or raw seafood juices, Cennimo advised.
Cook all seafood thoroughly and wash your hands after handling raw shellfish, he added.
Most infections caused by Vibrio bacteria are gastrointestinal and cause food poisoning-like symptoms, such as diarrhea, vomiting, cramping, abdominal pain and sometimes fever. Symptoms usually start one day after ingestion and last for three days.
Skin infections caused by the bacteria may be inflamed and red, with blisters. The site may also turn deep blue like a severe bruise. A fever may develop and confusion can occur in severe cases. Immediate emergency medical care is required because the infection can progress rapidly to death, Cennimo said.
For most people, the skin infection can be treated with antibiotics. However, necrotizing (flesh-eating) infections can be very serious and move very fast.
People especially at risk of severe and aggressive infection include those with a weakened immune system due to conditions such as liver disease, cancer, diabetes or HIV, and those who are on immune-suppressing therapy or are recovering from stomach surgery.