Every day for the last week I’ve seen a new report of someone dying or losing a limb due to “flesh-eating bacteria.”
Is there an epidemic? Should we panic?
Flesh-eating bacteria are bacteria that cause a serious—and deadly—disease called necrotizing fasciitis.
But even though necrotizing fasciitis (NF) is a really, really bad disease, it’s also really, really rare.
And what can be scarier than someone saying their spouse/parent/child was fine one day and dead the next?
The best way to fight the fear is with information.
Types of flesh-eating bacteria
Several bacteria can cause NF. The most common are probably group A streptococcus, which also causes strep throat, and staphylococcus aureus, which causes most minor skin infections.
Both bacteria are part of the normal flora on and in our bodies, and we usually co-exist with them just fine. We don’t really know why—in very rare cases—these bacteria become more aggressive and deadly.
But it’s another type of flesh-eating bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus, that’s responsible for the recent spate of terrifying stories.
Vibrio vulnificus—that name just sounds menacing, doesn’t it?—thrives in the warm, brackish waters along the Gulf Coast. Bacteria concentrations are highest from May to October.
As water temperatures rise with climate change, however, the vibrio season may be longer. The bacteria are also creeping up the East coast.
V. vulnificus can also infect shellfish, especially oysters, and cause an intestinal infection.
Like lots of bacteria, V. vulnificus enters the body through an open wound; even small cuts or scrapes can be vulnerable.
The bacteria then releases a toxin that constricts blood vessels. This causes tissue death, and also prevents antibiotics or the body’s own infection fighters, the white blood cells, from killing the bacteria. That’s why NF is so difficult to treat and surgery to cut out the infected tissue is almost always required.
Common sense tips to protect yourself
Beachgoers in the Gulf states have always had a very slight risk of vibrio infections, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been keeping track of them since 1989.
In 2014, the most recent published report, there were 124 cases of V. vulnificus infection. When you compare that to the total number of people hitting the beaches that year, the potential risk of getting a flesh-eating bacteria disease is point zero zero zero…something.
Driving is MUCH more dangerous, yet most of us don’t avoid cars. So don’t be afraid to go to the beach.
Even though the risk of necrotizing fasciitis is incredibly small, there are a few common sense things you can do to protect yourself from V. vulnificus.
- Pay attention to posted warning signs about V. vulnificus at beaches.
- Stay out of the water if you have any open wounds, or have a suppressed immune system.
- Wear shoes to protect yourself from getting cuts and scrapes.
- Clean minor wounds with soap and water. That’s just good advice to prevent infections of any kind.
- Cover open or draining wounds with clean, dry bandages until they heal. I like using Tegaderm, a clear, waterproof yet breathable bandage from Nexcare.
- Watch for signs of infection and seek help right away. While a typical infection may take a few days to be noticeable, necrotizing fasciitis hits fast and hard. If you develop a high fever with chills, or have a sore that becomes red or black unusually quickly and is extremely painful, go to the emergency room.
- Don’t eat raw oysters or other raw shellfish from contaminated waters.
- Wear gloves when handling raw oysters and shellfish; wash your hands after.
- Don’t handle raw oysters and shellfish if you have any open wounds.
Image obtained from the CDC Public Health Image Library