This Is One Big Reason Flesh-Eating Bacteria May Be On The Rise

Contributing Health & Nutrition Editor By Stephanie Eckelkamp
Contributing Health & Nutrition Editor
Stephanie Eckelkamp is a writer and editor who has been working for leading health publications for the past 10 years. She received her B.S. in journalism from Syracuse University with a minor in nutrition.

Image by Shawnn Tan / Unsplash

If you've read any health news this summer, chances are you've heard about (and been totally freaked out by) the "flesh-eating bacteria" infecting people at U.S. beaches. While there are several forms of flesh-eating bacteria, the one gaining the most attention lately is called Vibrio vulnificus, which is found in saltwater and brackish coastal waters where oceans meet rivers. 

Why it's kind of scary: If someone is exposed to V. vulnificus via a wound such as a cut, scrape, or bug bite, the bacteria can cause a complication known as necrotizing fasciitis (or "flesh-eating disease"), a rapidly spreading and painful infection that destroys skin and muscle and which kills up to one in three people who contract it.

People can also be exposed to the bacteria by ingesting contaminated seafood and go on to develop what's known as vibriosis, an infection resulting in mild to severe symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, and fever

But, once thought to be confined to warm beach destinations like those along the Gulf Coast, V. vulnificus is now infecting people in more northern climes like New Jersey and Delaware—and experts chalk that up to climate change. 

This bacteria is on the rise, thanks to warmer water. 

Because V. vulnificus does best when surface-water temperatures are higher than 55 degrees, it used to be found primarily south of the Chesapeake Bay. But sea temperatures are rising, and a number of cases have been identified farther north in areas bordering the Delaware Bay, like New Jersey.

In fact, researchers from a New Jersey hospital, Cooper University Health Care, recently released a report in the Annals of Internal Medicine linking the uptick in these infections from the Delaware Bay with the rise in water temperature. Inspiration for the report came when doctors noticed a strange rise in V. vulnificus infections at the hospital—while there was just one case from 2009 to 2017, there have been five since 2017. (To make you feel slightly better, all five of these cases were in men who worked on or near the water and had health conditions that already compromised their immune systems.) 

While cases haven't increased drastically yet, "vibrio has the potential to become a more common infection in currently cooler regions given rising ocean temperatures," says Brian Labus, Ph.D., MPH, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas. "Small changes in ocean temperatures can lead to big changes in the types and numbers of bacteria that live in a particular area. A change of just a degree or two could make a huge difference in the life of a bacteria."

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Who's at greatest risk of contracting this infection? 

You don't need to freak out just yet, even though the news reports would lead you to believe otherwise. "We are mostly hearing about this because it's a scary-sounding [infection] that is associated with the ocean, and this is the time of year when people go on vacation," says Labus. "The reality is that it's quite rare, and most people develop a gastrointestinal illness that goes away in about three days."

About 80,000 people become sick with vibriosis, and 100 people die from their infection every year in the U.S. And while anyone can get sick from the bacteria, the CDC states that you're more likely to get an infection or suffer severe complications if you:

  • Have liver disease, cancer, diabetes, HIV, or another condition that compromises the immune system
  • Receive immune-suppressing therapy for treating a disease
  • Take medicine to decrease stomach acid levels
  • Have had recent stomach surgery

How to keep yourself safe on your next beach vacay. 

There are a number of simple steps you can take to keep yourself safe. The CDC offers the following tips on how to prevent yourself from being infected with V. vulnificus:

  • Don't eat raw or undercooked oysters or other shellfish, and always wash your hands with soap and water after handling raw shellfish (better yet, wear gloves).
  • Stay out of saltwater or brackish water if you have a wound (including cuts and scrapes), or cover your wound with a waterproof bandage or protective clothing. This is key if your immune system is compromised. 
  • Wash your wounds and cuts thoroughly with soap and water if they've been exposed to seawater or raw seafood.
  • If you develop a skin infection, tell your medical provider if your skin has come into contact with saltwater, brackish water, or raw seafood.

All that said, if you start to notice any funky symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, a weird rash, or skin that is painful to the touch after spending time at the beach, seek medical attention ASAP. "Prompt treatment with antibiotics may save your life," says Labus.

Bottom line: Don't freak out, but do take steps to keep yourself safe on your next beach trip. And remember to slather on that sunscreen—you're still at way higher risk of getting a killer sunburn than you are of contracting a killer flesh-eating infection. 

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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