Warm Water Warning

What to Know About Flesh-Eating Bacteria in Florida

Here's how to stay safe.

By Chloe Nelson July 12, 2022

Vibrio vulnificus is a bacteria that can be present in marine environments such as estuaries, brackish ponds or coastal areas.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in July 2022.

Summer in Sarasota offers residents a chance to beat the heat by taking a dip in the water. But, as water temperatures rise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a warning about contracting a deadly superbug.

Vibrio vulnificus, commonly known in Florida as a “flesh-eating bacteria,” is a thermophilic pathogen that often thrives in warm, marine environments. Historically found in warm brackish water and saltwater, such as the Gulf of Mexico, the bacteria have now started to migrate to other bodies of water as a result of global warming and rising temperatures around the world.

Climate change experts at NASA have high confidence that “global temperatures will continue to rise for decades to come largely due to greenhouse gases produced by human activities"—meaning these deadly bacteria will be sticking around for quite some time.

The Florida Department of Health recorded a total of 34 cases in Florida that resulted in 10 deaths last year. Two people died from the bacteria in Manatee County. While neither Sarasota nor Manatee County has seen any cases of the disease this year, health officials are still urging residents to remain aware of the situation.

Earlier this month, health officials released a statement about the bacterium, confirmed cases in each county and various visual resources with more information. To avoid contracting the Vibrio vulnificus infection, experts recommend avoiding bodies of water if you have an open wound, cut or scrape. Washing hands with soap and water, keeping your skin healthy and showering after water activities are also preventive measures residents can take to avoid contracting the bacteria.

The state is also warning those with immune-compromising conditions to be more cautious when going into bodies of water this summer. The statement suggests that residents “wear proper foot protection to prevent cuts and injury caused by rocks and shells on the beach.” While chlorinated water is likely cleaner than non-chlorinated water, Baylor College of Medicine's Dr. Stacey Rose says there is still a risk attached to any body of water that has warmer temperatures.

When it comes to food, experts are telling residents to also avoid eating raw shellfish. Instead, boil, steam or fry shellfish thoroughly before consuming it, and, when handling raw seafood, wear protective gloves or gear.

Ingesting the bacteria can cause vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal pain, while wound exposure through water can lead to skin breakdown and ulcers. According to the health department, while healthy individuals typically develop only a mild case of the disease, the infection can become life-threatening if not treated quickly, especially in those with weak immune systems. If the bacteria invade the bloodstream, symptoms can include fever, chills, septic shock and blistering skin lesions.

Since Vibrio vulnificus bloodstream infections are fatal 50 percent of the time, the department urges residents to tell a doctor immediately or visit a nearby infectious disease clinic if experiencing any of the stated indicators. While Vibrio vulnificus infections are rare, some serious cases can result in surgery or amputation of the infected limb.

For more info, visit the Florida Department of Health website, call (850)-245-4444, or email [email protected].

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