As summer heats up and people head to the water to cool off, cases of flesh-eating bacteria are becoming more frequent, primarily on the eastern seaboard.
While chances of contracting a potentially-deadly bacteria from the waters is low — there are typically about 20,000 cases in the U.S. each year, which is small in relation to the number of swimmers — it’s important to know how to stay safe, especially as climate change is leading to an increased number of cases.
To get the facts on how people can protect themselves from all types of flesh-eating bacteria, as well as the risks, PEOPLE spoke with Scott Weisenberg, MD, medical director of NYU Langone Health’s Travel Medicine Program and professor of infectious diseases.
What is flesh-eating bacteria?
Generally when people use that term, they are referring to a tissue-destroying infection. Different types of bacteria can cause it, but one — vibrio — is associated with the summertime seawater exposures that are in the news now. The most severe symptom is necrotizing fasciitis, which is an aggressive and potentially deadly infection.
How do you get the infection?
It comes from swimming in waters with high amounts of the bacteria. Seawater and brackish waters — where salt and fresh water mix — in coastal areas tend to lead to the most cases. You can also ingest vibrio from eating raw shellfish.
Why do cases of necrotizing fasciitis seem more prevalent this summer?
The CDC estimates there are 80,000 cases of vibrio infection each year, with 500 hospitalizations and 100 deaths. But the number of cases has been increasing, most likely due to climate change: The bacteria thrive at water temperatures over 55 degrees — and ocean temperatures are rising.
How can I minimize my risk?
For the average person the risk is fairly low, though anyone with an open wound should be careful. But a high-risk person — someone with a compromised immune system or liver disease — is more likely to suffer severe consequences and should avoid the water if they have scrapes. People may also want to wear sandals in the water to prevent cuts, and shower after they go in the water.
- For more on flesh-eating bacteria and how to prevent it, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
What are the first signs of necrotizing fasciitis?
It can start with an aggressive wound that may quickly get worse, redden and spread. The person will typically start feeling very sick, feverish and dizzy. Seek medical attention without delay. Don’t wait a day.
What is the typical prognosis?
It can be very variable. It’s treated with antibiotics, but surgery may be required to remove unhealthy tissue. If somebody gets a severe necrotizing infection, that’s a life-threatening illness.
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What would you tell worried parents who are sending their kids off to camp?
These infections are largely in coastal gulf waters, not necessarily in places where kids go to camp. But parents should counsel kids to check their skin, and if they have any wounds that develop or worsen after being in water, they should ask for an adult’s help.
What is my risk of developing this?
Among all the people who go swimming or come into contact with the water all around the U.S., even in the South and areas with higher risk, the number of cases is still relatively rare. There are all sorts of risks we take in life. People should just make sure they’re not taking excess risks and watch for any wound issues after going in salty or brackish water.