Bathing in the sea: "Carnivorous bacteria" can cause serious infections

Vibrions: health hazard when bathing

Anyone who goes swimming in the sea in summer can become infected with vibrions. These bacteria, which are sometimes also referred to as "carnivorous bacteria", can trigger serious illnesses and lead, among other things, to wound infections and blood poisoning. Some infections are fatal.

Those who take a dip in the sea in midsummer may have to pay more attention. This is pointed out by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). Because at high water temperatures bacteria of the Vibrio genus multiply. These can penetrate the human body through small, unnoticed wounds and cause wound infections there. Deaths have also been reported.

Bacteria in fresh and salt water

Vibrions are rod-shaped, salt-tolerant bacteria that, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), occur worldwide in both fresh and salt water, for example in estuaries / bays, lagoon / lagoon, brackish water and sometimes also in inland lakes such as the Austrian Lake Neusiedl.

Non-cholera vibrions multiply especially with a salt content of 0.5-2.5 percent and from a temperature of over 20 degrees Celsius. In warm summers, these conditions also exist on parts of the German North and Baltic coasts.

Infections from eating or bathing

Consumers can become infected by eating contaminated seafood (especially when eating raw oysters or eating insufficiently heated seafood and fish products) or by ingesting contaminated water.

Most food-borne Vibrio infections are caused by the three species Vibrio parahaemolyticus, Vibrio cholerae and Vibrio vulnificus. According to experts, the latter type can be classified as "carnivorous bacteria".

In addition to foodborne illnesses, many vibrions can also trigger wound and ear infections caused by contact with water containing vibrions. One such pathogen is Vibrio vulnificus, which can cause life-threatening blood poisoning (sepsis) in people who are weak in the body's defenses, usually older people.

According to the BfR, such infections can occur during very long heat periods after bathing in the sea or hiking in sea water (rinsing seam).

Deadly course of disease possible

Vibrions can trigger wound infections, among other things. According to previous experience, more than half of all cases have resulted in a very serious course with profound skin and tissue destruction, the Schleswig-Holstein state government explains on its website.

This in turn can lead to severe blood poisoning (sepsis). Blood poisoning can quickly become life-threatening, so rapid therapy is very important. Fatal infections have also been reported in the past.

Eating contaminated food such as raw oysters can cause gastrointestinal complaints with nausea, diarrhea and cramps, or serious blood poisoning (sepsis).

Elderly people with a weak immune system or people who have weakened immune systems due to previous illnesses can be particularly at risk. Above all, this includes people with chronic diseases such as liver diseases, diabetes mellitus, alcohol dependence and other diseases that weaken or suppress the immune system.

According to the RKI, infections can also be managed with risky patients with fast, suitable and adequately dosed antimicrobial therapy (antibiotics). If the infection progresses untreated or treated too late, surgical treatment (up to the amputation of affected limbs) may also be necessary due to the rapid progression of the infection.

What should be considered

People with open or poorly healing wounds should avoid summer-warm sea water (from a water temperature of 20 degrees) as in the North and Baltic Seas. This applies all the more if you suffer from previous illnesses or have a weakened immune system.

The number of infections will increase

Scientists assume that the number of vibrion infections will increase. The reason for this is global warming and the associated increased temperatures of sea water. This particularly affects surface water and sea water near the coast.

According to the BfR, the consequences will likely be less severe for fishing that takes place in the deeper layers of water on the open sea. Because the caught fish and fishery products are usually not eaten raw, but heated or processed. (ad)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

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