Do you need to worry about swimming in the ocean this summer?

By Julia Guerra
Boiarkina Marina/Shutterstock

In July 2019, Virginia native, Amanda Edwards contracted a flesh-eating bacterial infection after swimming in Norfolk's Ocean View beach for a brief 10 minutes, WTKR reports.

The infection spread up her leg within 24 hours, making it impossible for Amanda to walk. Doctors were able to treat and stop the infection before it was able to spread further into her body, she told the news outlet.

This isn't the only case. Earlier this month, multiple cases of flesh-eating bacteria, otherwise known as necrotizing fasciitis, began surfacing in the state of Florida:

  • Lynn Flemming, a 77-year-old woman, contracted and died from the infection after cutting her leg in the Gulf of Mexico in Manatee County, according to ABC Action News.
  • Barry Briggs from Waynesville, Ohio, nearly lost his foot to the infection while vacation in Tampa Bay, reported the news outlet.
  • Kylei Brown, a 12-year-old from Indiana, contracted the flesh-eating disease in her calf on her right leg, according to CNN.
  • Gary Evans died from a flesh-eating bacterial infection after vacationing along the Gulf of Mexico in Magnolia Beach, Texas with his family, PEOPLE reported.

It's unclear whether these cases are the result of the same bacteria, or if they are separate, but equally disturbing instances.

Before you panic and avoid beach vacations for the remainder of the summer, here are some facts to help you better understand what flesh-eating bacteria actually is, and how it's contracted in the first place. (Related: How to Get Rid of Bad Skin Bacteria Without Wiping Out the Good)

What is necrotizing fasciitis?

Necrotizing fasciitis, or flesh-eating disease, is "an infection that results in the death of parts of the body's soft tissue," explains Niket Sonpal, a New York-based internist and gastroenterologist faculty member at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. When contracted, the infection spreads rapidly, and symptoms can range from red or purple skin, severe pain, fever, and vomiting, says Dr. Sonpal.

Most of the aforementioned cases of flesh-eating disease share a common thread: They were contracted through cuts in the skin. This is because those who have an injury or wound are prone to necrotizing fasciitis-causing bacteria making their way into the human body, says Dr. Sonpal.

"Flesh-eating bacteria relies on the vulnerability of their host, meaning they're more likely to infect you if (a) you are exposed to a lot of the bacteria in a short period of time, and (b) there's a way for the bacteria to break through your natural defenses (either because you have a deficient immune system or a weakness in your skin barrier) and it accesses your bloodstream," says Dr. Sonpal.

Who is most at risk?

People who have a weak immune system are also sensitive to flesh-eating bacteria, because their bodies are unable to properly fight off the bacteria, and are therefore unable to prevent the infection from spreading, adds Nikola Djordjevic, MD, co-founder of MedAlertHelp.org.

"People with diabetes, alcohol or drug problems, chronic systemic disease, or malignant diseases are more prone to getting infected," Dr. Djordjevic says. "People with HIV, for instance, can exhibit very uncommon symptoms at the beginning which makes the condition hard to diagnose." (Related: 10 Easy Ways to Boost Your Immune System)

Can you treat the infection?

Treatments will ultimately depend on the level of the infection, explains Dr. Djordjevic, though surgery is generally necessary in order to remove the infected tissue completely, as well as some strong antibiotics. "The most important thing is to remove the damaged blood vessels," but in situations where bones and muscles are affected, amputation may be needed, says Dr. Djordjevic.

Many people actually carry a kind of bacteria that causes necrotizing fasciitis, group A streptococcus, on their skin, in their nose, or throats, says Dr. Sonpal.

To be clear, this problem is rare, according to the CDC, but climate change isn't helping. "Most often, this type of bacteria thrives in warm water," Dr. Sonpal says.

The bottom line

All things considered, taking a dip in the ocean or getting a scrape on your leg probably won't lead to a flesh-eating bacterial infection. But while there isn't necessarily reason to panic, it's always in your best interest to take precautions whenever possible.

"Avoid exposing open wounds or broken skin to warm salt or brackish water, or to raw shellfish harvested from such waters," says Dr. Sonpal.

If you're venturing into rocky waters, wear water shoes to prevent cuts from rock and shell, and practice good hygiene, especially when washing cuts and tending to open wounds. The best thing you can do is take care of your body and be aware of your surroundings.

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