What To Know About Flesh-Eating Bacteria Before You Head Out For A Summer Swim

As things heat up during the summertime, so does the water. Unfortunately, this can contribute to the growth of flesh-eating bacteria (via Texas Medical Center). If this leaves you hesitant about taking a dip, here are some expert tips on how to stay safe while still enjoying some much-needed beach time.

Dr. Laila Woc-Colburn, associate professor of infectious diseases and director of medical education at the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, states via the Texas Medical Center, "Flesh-eating bacteria is a misnomer and actually there are several bacteria under that umbrella." Among these types of bacteria are Group A Streptococcus — the same bacteria responsible for strep throat – and Vibrio vulnificus (via HealthDay). In all cases, the infection can spread quickly, leading to skin and tissue death.

While rare, Vibrio vulnificus accounts for 100 deaths annually, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and can also develop into necrotizing fasciitis (via Texas Medical Center). Patients need antibiotic treatment, along with surgical removal of the affected tissue. In some cases, amputation may be necessary. Prompt treatment is crucial, as mortality rates approach 100% if the infection is left untreated for three days.

However, the CDC warns that necrotizing fasciitis is lethal in up to one-third of cases even with treatment, so prevention is key.

How to protect yourself against flesh-eating bacteria infection

To start, it's important to know the kind of environment in which flesh-eating bacteria thrive. "The infections usually occur when there are warm and brackish waters—the mix between river water and salt water," says Dr. Laila Woc-Colburn via Texas Medical Center. Woc-Colburn explains that the temperature of beach waters rises during the summertime, fostering the growth of Vibrio vulnificus bacteria.

Most people who develop necrotizing fasciitis have conditions that weaken their immune systems. Those with liver or kidney disease, cancer, or diabetes (per CDC) and those who are pregnant (via Texas Medical Center) are particularly susceptible to the condition. Therefore, it's important to exercise caution both before and after your summer swim.

Since the bacteria can infect the body through broken skin, those with an open wound are better off avoiding the water altogether. This applies to natural bodies of water, pools, and hot tubs, according to the CDC. Woc-Colburn suggests wearing protective footwear while swimming, per Texas Medical Center. After swimming, you'll want to clean yourself thoroughly by showering and washing your hands with soap and water. If you cut your skin while in the water, get out and clean the area with water and soap (per HealthDay). 

Be sure to seek immediate medical attention if you notice redness or irritation on the skin that spreads quickly and becomes warm or forms blisters (via HealthDay). Other symptoms include fever, swelling, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and skin color changes.