With Infectious Disease Specialist Manuel Gordillo, MD
In the wake of recent reports of “flesh-eating bacteria" in the waters around Sarasota, Healthe-Matters editors reached out to local infectious disease expert Manuel Gordillo, MD, to find out whether our area Gulf waters are safe for swimming and to learn more about "necrotizing fasciitis" and bacterial skin infections.
Dr. Gordillo leads Sarasota Memorial’s Infection Prevention and Control Department as medical director and is a specialist with Infectious Disease Associates of Sarasota. Here, he weighs in on flesh-eating bacteria.
Q: Should Suncoast beachgoers avoid swimming because of 'flesh-eating bacteria'?
Necrotizing fasciitis, commonly called “flesh eating bacteria,” is a rare condition caused by more than one type of bacteria. The most common of these is Group A strep; another is Vibrio vulnificus, which occurs naturally in warm, salt or brackish water all over the world. Severe infection with the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria is quite rare, as symptoms are typically mild.
People don’t "catch" necrotizing fasciitis. It is a complication or symptom of a bacterial infection that has not been promptly or properly treated. Rapid diagnosis is the key to effective treatment and recovery of these infections.
There’s no reason to avoid the beach or the beautiful waters of this region. Simply be mindful of your health and don't delay first-aid of even minor, non-infected wounds like blisters, scrapes or any break in the skin.
In most healthy people, the bacteria is harmless or can cause minor infection to cuts or punctures suffered in salt water. Swimmers with some health conditions — such as cirrhosis or other forms of advanced liver diseases, cancer or diabetes — may be at higher risk for developing more severe illness if they develop a Vibrio vulnificus infection.
If you have a cut, burn or other wound, consider staying out of the water until it heals, or protect the wound site from direct contact with water. The bacteria can enter through a break in the skin and cause infection. If you think you have a wound that has become infected, seek medical attention immediately. Vibrio vulnificus infection is treatable with antibiotics and proper wound care, but the sooner you begin treatment, the better.
Steps for Prevention
Some practical precautions that can reduce your risk of bacterial skin infection include:
- Wear closed-toe water shoes any time you are in or near salt or brackish waters, especially during summer months.
- Immediately clean any wounds or cuts sustained in salt or brackish waters; be prepared for unexpected injuries by packing fresh water and soap for rinsing wounds or cuts.
- Good wound care is the best way to prevent any bacterial skin infection. Keep open wounds covered with clean, dry bandages until healed.
- If you have existing cuts or wounds, protect them from exposure with waterproof, water-tight coverings like appropriate tapes or bandages; after swimming, be sure to rinse the area thoroughly with soap and water.
- Contact a doctor and seek treatment immediately, if any symptoms occur: redness, pain or swelling at the site of a wound or injury; fever and feeling unwell. On the rare occasions when serious Vibrio vulnificus infection occurs, illness typically begins within one to three days of exposure, but it can occur as late as a week after.
According to the Florida Department of Health, the people with the greatest risk of exposure to bacteria in any water — saltwater bodies, pools or hots tubs — are very young children, the elderly, and those with chronic diseases and/or weakened immune systems. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the Gulf, bay, pools or hot tubs. Just be sure you monitor your overall health and skin condition for possible signs of infection.
Have a question for Dr. Gordillo or another SMH expert? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.