How to avoid and identify a Vibrio vulnificus infection
It’s the scary, though slightly inaccurate, subject of recurring headlines each year. But the real culprit is a bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus, which can cause serious infections that lead to complications like necrotizing fasciitis, often described as "flesh-eating bacteria." Thankfully, Vibrio vulnificus is easy to avoid and readily treatable.
What Is Vibrio Vulnificus?
Vibrio vulnificus is a dangerous bacteria found in warm seawater or semi-salty waters, such as areas of the Florida coast where fresh water reaches the ocean. It can enter the body either through open cuts and sores that are exposed to contaminated seawater or by eating raw shellfish, particularly oysters, that can carry the bacterium. It can quickly lead to a life-threatening illness called vibriosis and the infection can be fatal if left untreated.
Symptoms of Vibrio Vulnificus Infection
Once infected with Vibrio vulnificus, the illness comes shortly after, usually less than a day later. Symptoms can include:
- Skin redness or painful rash
- Fluid-filled blisters that are discolored and painful
- Dizziness, fainting or weakness
- Fast heart rate
If you experience these symptoms after consuming raw shellfish or swimming in the ocean, seek treatment immediately.
Are You At Risk?
Certain conditions can make someone more susceptible to developing a bad Vibrio vulnificus infection, if exposed to the bacteria. These include:
- Diabetes and/or chronic kidney failure
- Liver disease, particularly cirrhosis
- HIV or any condition that weakens the immune system
Treating A Vibrio Vulnificus Infection
The good news is that a Vibrio vulnificus infection can be treated and cured with antibiotics, if caught early. But if the infection spreads and festers, it can lead to what is called necrotizing fasciitis, a serious complication that destroys the skin and the surrounding tissue and is often called "flesh-eating disease." At that point, treatment to control the bacterial infection becomes much more intensive and can even require amputation to save the patient.
Because Vibrio vulnificus infections can spread quickly and cause life-threatening conditions such as sepsis and shock, a doctor may even start a course of antibiotic treatment when Vibrio is suspected, but before it can be confirmed by testing a blood, stool, mucus or tissue sample in the lab.
How To Avoid Vibrio Vulnificus Infection
Stay out of warm saltwater if you have any open cuts, sores or wounds.
Stay out of warm saltwater if you have a weakened immune system.
Do not eat undercooked or raw shellfish.
Wear protective clothing when handling undercooked or raw shellfish.
Do not eat cooked seafood that has been left unrefrigerated.
What To Do In Case of Suspected Infection
If you think that you or a loved one are exhibiting symptoms of Vibrio vulnificus infection, immediately seek care. For very mild symptoms, an Urgent Care Center may be enough. But if there’s a fever, the infection is painful, the redness spreading rapidly and blisters are present, go straight to the nearest Emergency Room. And if you have underlying medical conditions or a compromised/suppressed immune system, go straight to the nearest Emergency Room. Swift treatment can make all the difference.
Written by Sarasota Memorial copywriter Philip Lederer, MA, who crafts a variety of external communications for the healthcare system. SMH's in-house wordsmith, Lederer earned his Master's degree in Public Administration and Political Philosophy from Morehead State University, KY, and is a flesh-eating mammal.