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Ocean City

Flesh-Eating Bacteria in The Bay?!

Spending time in Ocean City’s water is one of the best activities in the area. Whether taking a dip on a hot summer day, capsizing with your friends in a kayak, or tubing and wakeboarding, the refreshing feeling of the bay and ocean is unbeatable! Yet, there has been concern amongst swimmers about a microscopic danger that could ruin your time in the water — flesh-eating bacteria! Are the rumors true? Are there really flesh-eating bacteria surrounding Ocean City?

Vibrio Species Causing Vibrio Image Credit: CDC

In short, the answer is yes, although they are not as daunting as their name implies. This so-called “flesh-eating bacteria” in Ocean City’s bay and ocean is scientifically known as Vibrio vulnificus. Vibrio can be found in warm coastal waters on both the East and West coasts of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico. There are a few types of this bacteria, but Vibrio vulnificus is a prominent variation in Maryland. These bacteria love warm waters, with an optimal growing temperature of 68 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. In Ocean City, the bay typically runs in the 60s and 70s during the summer months, so June, August, and September are when you would likely interact with one. While Vibrio does exist in saltwater, they are mainly found in brackish (bay) water. There are probably not as many in the ocean as in the bay.

Sinepuxent Bay photo by Liz Wist

The presence of this bacteria may scare swimmers, but in reality, the risk of being infected by Vibrio is lower than you might think. First, coming in contact with Vibrio does not guarantee that you will become infected and develop vibriosis. The bacteria will only cause infection if it can find a suitable host. Most infected swimmers have open wounds or recently received a piercing or tattoo. Swimmers with open wounds and compromised immune systems are most vulnerable to vibriosis. The infection on the skin can lead to rashes or necrotizing fasciitis, where the skin around the open wound dies (hence the name “flesh-eating bacteria”). However, swimming is not even the most common way to contract vibriosis. More than half the cases in the United States are due to contaminated seafood! Vibriosis from ingestion results in similar symptoms to food poisoning. And although there is a chance that vibriosis can lead to death, 4 out of 5 people will make a full recovery within three days of contact with the bacteria. All in all, there is a super low chance that Vibrio vulnificus will impact your OC fun!

 

If you are still worried about how Vibrio may affect your experience, you can use these tips to easily avoid these tiny troublemakers!

  • Cover your wounds! If you plan to swim in the ocean or bay, it’s a good idea to cover any cuts or scrapes with a waterproof bandage. That way, the bacteria can’t enter the wound!
  • Shower with soap and water after swimming in the bay. If there is a chance you’ve come in contact with Vibrio, soap and water soon after the contact will likely solve the problem. 
  • Watch your seafood! Try to avoid undercooked seafood, especially oysters, which cause most vibriosis cases. 
  • Most importantly, don’t stop enjoying the wonderful water that Ocean City has to offer! Vibrio is not something to be stressed about! As long as you swim safely, you should be fine!
About the Author
Sara Butz is a summer intern with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program who assists with education programming and scientific monitoring.

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