You might have read alarming yet not entirely precise headlines recently. The headlines are not a plot of a cheap B-rated Netflix movie. The true antagonist is a bacteria named Vibrio vulnificus. This bacteria can trigger severe infections resulting in conditions such as necrotizing fasciitis, commonly known as "flesh-eating bacteria."
Flesh-eating bacteria? Really
Not Flesh-Eating Bacteria But Still Dangerous
Vibrio vulnificus is a type of bacteria that can cause serious illness in people who eat raw or undercooked shellfish, such as oysters, clams, and mussels. It can also cause infections in people with open wounds exposed to warm seawater.
Since Vibrio vulnificus infections are most common in the Gulf Coast states, including Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, many older adults can be impacted either because they live full-time or part-time or vacation there. However, they can also occur in other parts of the country, including the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
Vibrio vulnificus infections can cause various symptoms, including diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and chills. In some cases, the bacteria can enter the bloodstream and cause a serious infection called sepsis. Sepsis can lead to organ failure and death.
Impact on Older Adults
Older adults are at increased risk for serious complications from Vibrio vulnificus infections. This is because their immune systems are often weakened, and they are more likely to have underlying health conditions, such as liver disease or diabetes.
According to the CDC, 1 in 5 people who develop a Vibrio vulnificus infection die. Older adults are likelier to die from a Vibrio vulnificus infection than younger adults.
People who survive a Vibrio vulnificus infection may have long-term complications, such as amputations or liver damage. These complications can be especially devastating for older adults.
The symptoms of a Vibrio vulnificus infection can vary depending on the type of infection.
People who eat raw or undercooked shellfish contaminated with Vibrio vulnificus may develop gastrointestinal illness. Symptoms of gastrointestinal illness caused by Vibrio vulnificus include:
- Abdominal cramps
People with open wounds exposed to warm seawater contaminated with Vibrio vulnificus may develop a wound infection. Symptoms of a wound infection caused by Vibrio vulnificus include:
- Pus discharge
In some cases, Vibrio vulnificus can enter the bloodstream and cause a serious infection called sepsis. Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that can lead to organ failure and death.
Symptoms of sepsis include:
- High fever
- Low blood pressure
- Rapid breathing
Vibrio vulnificus infections require prompt medical attention, given their potential severity. The first line of treatment typically involves the administration of antibiotics. Doxycycline and a third-generation cephalosporin, such as cefotaxime or ceftriaxone, are commonly prescribed.
In cases where the infection resulted in wound contamination, thorough wound cleaning is imperative, but severe instances will require surgical debridement, which may be necessary to remove necrotic tissue.
Additionally, aggressive supportive care may be required in extreme situations where septicemia develops, including fluid management and possible hospitalization in intensive care units. Individuals need to seek medical care immediately if they suspect an infection, especially after exposure to brackish or salt water or consumption of raw or undercooked seafood.
Preventing Vibrio Vulnificus Infections
The best way to prevent Vibrio vulnificus infections is to avoid eating raw or undercooked shellfish. If you do eat shellfish, cook it thoroughly to an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
To avoid getting a Vibrio vulnificus wound infection, avoid exposing open wounds to warm seawater. If you have an open wound, clean it thoroughly with soap and water and cover it with a bandage.
Discussing Risk with Older Family Members
Navigating conversations about health and safety with older parents can be a delicate endeavor. Adult children need to approach the topic of Vibrio vulnificus infections with sensitivity, ensuring that the discussion is framed in love and concern rather than criticism or undue alarm. Begin by expressing appreciation for their wisdom and experiences, acknowledging that they've successfully navigated many risks throughout their lives. This recognition sets a positive tone for the subsequent conversation. Share recent news or studies about the risks associated with Vibrio vulnificus in an informative rather than frightening way. Offering specific, actionable advice, such as cooking seafood thoroughly or avoiding open wounds when in brackish or salt water, can help make the conversation constructive.
If an older parent has a caregiver, be sure the caregiver is also aware if the risk, especially if your loved one enjoys certain types of seafood or enjoys going to the beach and into the water.
Moreover, using personal stories or anecdotes can be an effective communication strategy. If you know someone or have read about someone who has been affected by the bacteria, sharing that story can make the threat more tangible. Offer practical tips like wearing protective footwear when wading in potentially affected waters or properly covering cuts and wounds.
Emphasize that taking these precautions doesn't mean they can't enjoy their favorite activities, but rather that they're simply adapting to remain safe. As with any health discussion, it's vital to listen actively to their thoughts and concerns answering questions they might have.
By demonstrating genuine concern and providing concrete solutions, adult children can more effectively convey the importance of taking precautions against Vibrio vulnificus infections.
About the Author
Linda is a former journalist who now enjoys writing about topics she is interested in so she “can keep her mind active and engaged”.
Contributor since December 11th, 2017
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