When we think about the risks of a long paddle in the ocean, we worry about things like dropping gear overboard and bad weather. Watching your expensive phone slide into 40 feet of water is heart-stopping, and having been caught out in an unexpected storm, I can tell you that whitecaps, heavy wind, and furious lighting will get your pulse racing, and not in a good way!

These are realistic concerns, and you’re wise to take precautions to protect yourself. At the very least, you’ll keep that phone stowed away and dry, and you’ll check the weather carefully before launching your ‘yak. That’s just good sense.

But there are other threats, too, and though they can be deadly, you might not know enough to stay safe. In fact, as the water temperature climbs in summer, it harbors an invisible and poorly known risk: an endemic species of flesh-eating bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus.

What Is It?

A saltwater relative of cholera, it’s a species of bacteria native to the subtropical water off the coast of the southern US. From as far north as Delaware in the east and California in the west, and across the Gulf coast, V. vulnificus makes its home in the surf, estuaries, tidal flats, and brackish water that kayakers turn to as the weather warms up.

Where Does It Come From?

Most scientists believe that V. vulnificus thrives when the water is warm, fluctuating in time with sea surface temperature. Summer’s the dangerous season, and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) warns that “about 80% of infections occur between May and October when water temperatures are warmer.”

How Do You Catch It?

Generally, people are infected by V. vulnificus in one of two ways:

  • Direct contact with open wounds When you enter the water with fresh tattoos, cuts, scrapes, or punctures from fish spines or hooks, the bacteria can directly infect the wound. For instance, a Texas man died this summer after wading into the surf with open wounds on his legs, and a crabber from Delaware contracted this deadly bacteria while running his crab pots. Last summer, another Texan died when his fresh tattoo gave the bacteria access to his body.
  • Eating contaminated seafood – especially raw or undercooked shellfish like clams, crabs, and oysters can increase your chances of succumbing to this fatal flesh-eating bacteria. The infection can start in your stomach and spread from there.
  • A compromised immune system is an added risk. If you suffer from alcoholism, cancer, diabetes, HIV, liver disease, or thalassemia, or if you’re on immunosuppressant therapy, you need to be extra cautious. V. vulnificus is opportunistic, and people with these issues have a hard time fighting-off this rapidly spreading infection.

How Dangerous Is It?

According to the CDC, “people with a Vibrio vulnificus infection can get seriously ill and need intensive care or limb amputation. About 1 in 4 people with this type of infection die, sometimes within a day or two of becoming ill.”

Most people will fight off an infection within a few days, but it’s scary to consider just how lethal this tiny menace can be.

  • V. Vulnificus can cause septicemia Once in an open wound, it can spread rapidly to the bloodstream, causing a body-wide infection. Chills, fever, low blood pressure, blistered skin lesions, and death can follow with just a few days. In fact, patients who are diagnosed with septicemia as a result of infection with this species of bacteria have mortality rates as high as 75%.
  • Called flesh-eating bacteria for a reason V. vulnificus can enter open wounds that come in contact with infected seawater. Once there, it can quickly cause necrotizing fasciitis, characterized by pain, swelling, and flu-like symptoms that progress very quickly after contact, within as little as 12 – 24 hours. As the tissue surrounding the wound dies, the flesh is ‘eaten’ by the infection, causing horrific open wounds.

How You Can Stay Safe

Staying safe is all about knowing the risks and responding correctly to a potential infection.

  • Stay out of the water This is simple, effective advice, and if you don’t come into contact with V. vulnificus, you can’t get infected. As the CDC cautions, “If you have a wound (including cuts and scrapes), avoid contact with brackish or salt water or cover the wound with a waterproof bandage if there’s a possibility it could come into contact with brackish or salt water, raw seafood, or raw seafood juices.
  • Don’t eat raw or undercooked clams, crabs, or oysters Always good advice, it’s even more important if you’re immunocompromised, take medication to reduce stomach acid, or have recently had stomach surgery.
  • Wash wounds with soap and water if they come into contact with seawater, raw seafood, or its juices. And at the very least, take a hot shower with plenty of soap after swimming or kayaking, explains Dr. Tim Durel, M.D., a primary care physician at the Ochsner Health Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Don’t panic if you find a scrape or scratch, but clean it well with soap.
  • Watch for signs of infection, including “fever, diarrhea, and nausea” with pain and swelling at the injury site. If you suspect an infection, seek medical care immediately. The CDC recommends that “if you develop a skin infection, tell your medical provider if your skin has come into contact with brackish or salt water, raw seafood, or raw seafood juices.”

Most people can safely kayak or swim in the ocean this summer. But if you have liver disease, diabetes, or a compromised immune system, you may want to take some common-sense precautions. Anglers, crabbers, and oystermen need to take particular care, as even tiny wounds are opportunities for V. vulnificus to begin its rapid-fire assault. And if you have an open wound or a fresh tattoo, you might want to give saltwater sports a pass until you heal.

About The Author

If it has fins, John has probably tried to catch it from a kayak. A native of Louisiana, he now lives in Sarajevo, where he's adjusting to life in the mountains. From the rivers of Bosnia to the coast of Croatia, you can find him fishing when he's not camping, hiking, or hunting.