Deadly flesh-eating bacteria found in several states. Do I need to worry?

Vibrio vulnificus infections are rare, but they can be deadly.

A photo illustration shows open jaws with sharp teeth.
Cases of deadly flesh-eating bacteria are happening throughout the U.S. Here’s what you need to know. (Photo illustration: Erik Carter for Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images) (Photo illustration: Erik Carter for Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)

Between COVID rates rising yet again and the risk of RSV and flu looming, health threats are all around. Yet another one has been grabbing people’s attention lately: a flesh-eating bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus.

At least eight people have died (three in the New York area, five in Florida) and more have been hospitalized in recent weeks because of infections from this bacteria. So what do experts want people to know and how can you keep yourself safe? Read on.

What’s happening

Vibrio vulnificus is a bacteria which lives in warm, salty water,” Dr. Jarod Fox, an infectious disease specialist at Orlando Health, tells Yahoo Life. “With climate change leading to warmer temperatures and with sea level rises leading to coastal rivers with higher salt content, the bacteria are being found in more places and for longer periods of time of the year.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 80% of vibriosis infections happen between May and October because of warmer water temperatures.

Do I need to worry?

Experts say caution is warranted given that an infection can cause serious problems and can even be deadly. “Vibrio vulnificus is a highly pathogenic” — meaning disease-causing — “bacterial species,” Oladele Ogunseitan, who researches antimicrobial resistance and stewardship at the University of California, Irvine, tells Yahoo Life.

When V. vulnificus enters the body, according to Cleveland Clinic, symptoms of an infection begin in less than 24 hours. They include fever, chills, skin redness or rash, fluid-filled blisters, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, fainting, weakness, confusion and a fast heart rate. A stool, wound or blood culture is needed for diagnosis.

According to the CDC, the infection can lead to limb amputation and 20 percent of people infected die quickly if their treatment isn’t intensive. “So, contracting the pathogen is very worrisome and quick diagnosis is important,” says Ogunseitan.

People who have liver diseases, hemochromatosis, chronic kidney failure, diabetes or are otherwise immunocompromised are more at risk.

However, experts point out that infections aren’t common. “It is still a relatively rare infection,” Fox says. More specifically, the CDC reports seeing about 80,000 cases and 100 deaths per year.

What can I do about it?

To be as safe as possible, experts say there are steps you can take. “The best way to protect yourself is to not enter the water with open wounds,” Fox says. “It can lead to wound infection if an open wound is exposed to the waters where high levels of Vibrio vulnificus are.”

This is especially crucial if you’re going into saltwater or brackish water when it’s hot. “This pathogen thrives in warm coastal waters and can infect open wounds,” Ogunseitan notes.

Take the word “wound” loosely, however — it doesn’t have to be a big cut. “People with active psoriasis, for example, or other conditions that compromise their skin, can be especially at risk,” Dr. Sarah Park, medical director at Karius, tells Yahoo Life.

Additionally, if you’re immunocompromised, Fox recommends wearing protective water shoes in the ocean.

If you do come in contact with these types of water, “it’s important to clean those wounds well with soap and water as soon as possible,” Park advises. If a skin infection or wound does develop — telltale signs include pain, warmth and increasing redness at the site — “you should seek medical attention immediately, especially if you do have any underlying medical conditions,” says Park. Treatment may include antibiotics and wound therapy, to start.

Ogunseitan and Fox also agree that it’s best to avoid seafood — especially raw oysters, according to the FDA — that’s not well-prepared or fully cooked.

The main takeaway

Although infections with flesh-eating bacteria are rare, taking V. vulnificus seriously is important. “After potential exposure, people should not take any early signs of infection or symptoms of vibriosis lightly, and they should seek prompt medical attention,” Ogunseitan says.

And they may not be going away anytime soon. “As climate change leads to warmer waters in more places for longer periods of time, we will likely continue to see more of these infections,” Fox says. “However, if you take precautions, you can decrease your chances of getting infected.”