With reports of five people who have been infected with flesh-eating bacteria across the Long Island Sound in Connecticut, area doctors answered questions about the dangerous pathogen.
For starters, the bacteria in Connecticut is called Vibrio vulnificus, and even though it’s extremely rare, it is especially problematic for people who have open wounds and have gone swimming in warm, salty or brackish — a combination of fresh and salty — waters.
Smaller cuts aren’t as much of a likely entry point for these bacteria, but open wounds such as skinned knees or elbows are, said Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital.
Those residents with open wounds who have swum in salty or brackish water can lower the risk of infection by washing their wounds with soap and freshwater soon after coming out of the water.
“Soap and water work,” Nachman said. “If you have no access to soap, regular water would be great.”
Vibrio is a rapidly spreading bacteria and is often visible soon after swimming.
“If you swim and you have an open wound and it looks different an hour or two after you get home than it did that morning, seek medical attention quickly,” Nachman advised.
The wound tends to get hot, is tender and red, and makes people who contract the bacteria feel sick. Getting ahead of the spread is particularly important.
Residents who are concerned that their wound might be changing can take a picture of the area and then, an hour later, compare that picture to how the injury looked.
While everyone doesn’t need to race to an emergency room for a possible wound that may look different after a swim, Nachman suggested people approach possible exposure with “thoughtful concern.”
An untreated infection can become much more serious, sometimes leading to amputations and even death. The five Connecticut cases haven’t involved any such dire developments.
Residents whose wounds appear to have a Vibrio infection typically receive at least two antibiotics either orally or intravenously. Some other pathogens in the water also can look as bad as Vibrio, but they need different antibiotics, which include Aeromonas. These other bacteria also find their way into bodies through open wounds and can cause rapidly progressing infections.
“When you go to the hospital, [medical personnel] may say that it looks like one of these [bacteria], and we are going to give you two to three antibiotics and see what happens,” Nachman said.
Once the medical staff determines the cause of the infection, they will likely cut the antibiotics back to the one that’s more effective for that specific bacteria.
With fewer people on the beach as school has restarted and people are engaged in more fall activities, potential infections from Vibrio have decreased.
While antibiotics are effective, they take time to beat back the bacteria.
With over 25 years in practice, Nachman has seen several cases of children who have contracted Vibrio. The children have been very sick, but have recovered.
People who have certain conditions can be more vulnerable to Vibrio, including people who have diabetes, are obese, or have heart or kidney problems.
Vibrio typically appears through wastewater. Shellfish, which are filter feeders, effectively clean the water. Warmer temperatures, however, or a big storm can cause shellfish beds to get upended, where pathogens might be dumped back into the water.
For more information, visit www.cdc.gov/vibrio/wounds.