Brittany Burgess

Brittany Burgess

Summertime heat in Texas leads many of us to the coast for some fun in the sun and marine time. Summer weather also brings higher risks for marine water-related infections, including Vibrio bacterial infections, a common bacteria naturally found in coastal waters.

Vibrio infections, or vibriosis, are caused by several Vibrio species and can cause gastrointestinal illness or skin infections in humans depending on the type of exposure. This bacteria is halophilic, basically meaning it needs salt to survive. Although this bacteria is found along the coast year round, it tends to be found in higher quantities when the weather is warmer.

In Texas, we tend to see most Vibrio infections between the months of May and October when the weather is hottest. The temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico tend to be warmer and promote the growth of bacteria like Vibrio. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services Infectious Disease Control Unit, Texas has averaged 90 Vibrio infections per year for the last 10 years.

Most cases of vibriosis occur in people who have eaten raw or undercooked contaminated seafood, particularly oysters, or when a person has an open wound that is exposed to saltwater or brackish water. Brackish water is described as the water found where fresh water from rivers and the saltwater from the sea meet and mix.

When contaminated seafood is eaten, the vibriosis infection tends to be gastrointestinal illness with symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, fever and chills frequently occurring within 24 hours of eating contaminated food and lasting about three days.

Vibriosis wound infections can cause redness, swelling, large blisters on the skin, skin ulcers and, in serious cases, even lead to limb amputation or death.

Anyone who develops a skin infection or gastrointestinal symptoms possibly due to Vibrio bacteria should contact their medical provider immediately. It is important to inform the medical provider of any skin or wound exposure with brackish water or seawater, raw seafood, raw seafood juices or consumption of raw or undercooked seafood before becoming ill.

People with weakened immune systems, suffering from liver disease, diabetes, cancer or other chronic diseases and anyone with decreased gastric acidity are at highest risk for severe illness.

The Texas Department of State Health Services recommends the following precautions to reduce the risk of infection:

  • Anyone with a pre-existing wound, including cuts, scrapes, fresh tattoos, blisters or bites, should avoid contact with seawater and any kind of raw seafood.
  • Anyone with a weakened immune system should wear protective water shoes.
  • If a wound is exposed to seawater or raw seafood, thoroughly wash the wound with soap and water and see a medical provider if the area begins to look infected.
  • Do not eat raw shellfish, especially oysters; cook seafood thoroughly.
  • Wear protective clothing like gloves when handling raw seafood.
  • Keep raw seafood separate from other food to avoid cross-contamination; immediately clean up raw seafood spills with hot, soapy water; and thoroughly wash hands, utensils, and surfaces after preparing or handling raw seafood.

The majority of cases in Texas have been due to water exposures to cuts, bites, scratches or other pre-existing wounds and eating contaminated raw or undercooked shellfish, particularly oysters, prior to illness. Always wash your hands, wounds and cuts thoroughly with soap and water after handling raw shellfish or its juices or being exposed to seawater.

Brittany Burgess has a master’s degree in public health and is a staff epidemiologist with the Victoria County Public Health Department.

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