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Vibrio Infections: Everything You Need to Know about the Potentially Life-Threatening Illness

Some strains of Vibrio bacteria can lead to serious complications such as shock, multiple organ failure, and death. Learn how you can prevent them.

Did you know Vibrio infections increased by almost 115 percent during the period from 1998 to 2010? On September 27, 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the most recent outbreak of a strain of Vibrio bacteria that affected seven states.

What is Vibrio?

Vibrio is a comma-shaped bacteria that can cause an infection called vibriosis. Vibriosis is broadly classified into two types – Vibrio cholera infections and noncholera Vibrio infections.

Twelve different species of the bacteria can cause illness in humans, according to the CDC.

Cholera, which is caused by Vibrio cholerae, is common in the developing world. On the other hand, most infections in the US are caused by the three species – Vibrio parahaemolyticus, Vibrio vulnificus, and Vibrio alginolyticus.

People who have eaten raw or undercooked shellfish, particularly oysters are most likely to get the infection. The bacteria can also enter into the body through the pores on the skin that has been exposed to brackish or salt water.

Vibrio symptoms usually last about three days. Nevertheless, in people with weak immune systems, they can lead to life-threatening complications.

Infections due to V. vulnificus can be serious and often require intensive care at the hospital. In fact, nearly 25 percent of the patients with V. vulnificus infection die within a few days after being infected.

The coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, New England, and the northern Pacific where the waters are moderately saline provide the most suitable condition for the growth of V. vulnificus. In addition, the bacteria multiply rapidly in warmer temperatures.

Vibrio Signs and Symptoms

The incubation period of Vibrio infections is about 24 hours. This means that people who have contracted the illness experience the symptoms within 24 hours after exposure to the bacteria.

In addition to watery diarrhea (no blood in the stools), infected people may also experience:

  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever

In an otherwise healthy adult, the symptoms usually clear within 3 days. However, in people with weakened immune systems or liver disorder, V. vulnificus can cause a serious blood infection (septicemia). The symptoms in such patients may include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Shock
  • Changes in consciousness
  • Mental confusion
  • Large skin lesions that may contain fluids
  • Dangerously low blood pressure
  • Fast heart rate

According to American Family Physician, skin lesions occur in more than half of the patients and one third are in septic shock at the time admission.

Severe skin lesions can rapidly lead to the death of nearby tissues, which is known as “flesh-eating disease” or necrotizing fasciitis. Interestingly, it’s the same reason why some people link vibriosis-related skin lesions to flesh-eating bacteria.

Causes of Vibrio Infections

Any of the species of Vibrio bacteria can cause illness. The bacteria can enter into your body in many ways. These include:

  1. Consuming uncooked or undercooked seafood, particularly oysters
  2. Exposing broken skin to warm seawater
  3. Handling raw seafood without using gloves
  4. Having sex in warm seawater
  5. Using an equipment that has been contaminated with the bacteria (this is less common).

Vibrio Treatment

In mild cases, you may not need any specific treatment. Make sure to drink plenty of fluids to restore water and electrolyte balance in the body. With proper rehydration, you should be fine within a couple of days.

However, persons with V. vulnificus infection need intensive care at the hospital. For such people, aggressive antibiotic therapy, medications to correct blood pressure, and surgical removal of the infected tissues can help reduce the risk of death and shorten hospital stay. In very severe cases, your doctor may decide to amputate the affected limb.

Patients who have undergone amputation and surgeries need long-term care that may involve physical rehabilitation and reconstructive surgeries.

Vibrio Infections: Know Your Risk

Anyone who eats raw or undercooked cooked fish or shellfish can contract the illness. People with compromised immune systems are at a greater risk of severe illness and complications.

The other risk factors are:

  • Use of over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medications that neutralize excess acid in the stomach
  • Having liver diseases, such as cirrhosis, hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection, hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection, and chronic alcohol use
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Anemia
  • Thalassemia
  • Use of steroidal medications or immunosuppressants
  • History of recent stomach surgery
  • Recipients of donated organs

How Can You Prevent Vibrio Infections?

  • Avoid eating partially cooked oysters or other shellfish. Click here to get tips for preparing oysters.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after touching uncooked shellfish.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by separately handling cooked shellfish and raw shellfish or its juices.
  • Do not expose broken skin or wound to brackish or salt water, raw seafood, or raw seafood juices.
  • Immediately wash wounds and cuts after they have been exposed to seawater or raw seafood or its juices.
  • Talk to your doctor right away, if you develop a skin infection following exposure to brackish or salt water, raw seafood, or raw seafood juices.
  • Wear gloves when handling uncooked seafood.

Top 10 Interesting Facts about Vibrio Infections

  1. Patients with cirrhosis who have consumed raw oysters are 80 times more likely to develop V. vulnificus infection.
  2. In certain states, restaurants that serve raw oysters shall display a notice warning the consumers about the potential risks of consuming raw oysters on their menus and placards.
  3. Vibriosis affects 80,000 people in the US each year. Moreover, it also causes 500 hospitalizations and 100 deaths each year.
  4. In the US, nearly 80 percent of infections occur in the months between May and October.
  5. Among the three species that frequently infect Americans, Vibrio parahaemolyticus is the most common.
  6. In patients with V. vulnificus infection who fail to receive treatment within 72 hours, the risk of death is almost 100 percent.
  7. Unlike V. vulnificus and V. parahaemolyticus, Vibrio alginolyticus typically causes infections of the ear, commonly called swimmer’s ear.
  8. It takes an internal temperature of 145° F for only 15 seconds to destroy Vibrio bacteria.
  9. There were 22 new cases of vibriosis in Louisiana and Mississippi during the 2 weeks following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, according to the CDC.
  10. High blood levels of free iron can significantly increase the risk of death from V. vulnificus infection.
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