A Texas woman reportedly died after eating what many consider a delicacy: raw oysters. While on vacation in Louisiana, Jeannette LeBlanc, along with friends and family, picked up some shellfish, shucked and ate them, and soon after developed extreme side effects. Over the next couple of days, she had trouble breathing and developed severe sores and rashes. Once at the hospital, she was diagnosed with vibriosis, an infection caused by bacteria in the genus Vibrio. LeBlanc fought the illness for three weeks, according to her wife Vicki Bergquist, and then died from the infection.
Due to the nature of the sores caused by Vibrio infections, the bacteria are often dubbed flesh-eating. Vibriosis is separate, however, from necrotizing fasciitis, commonly called a flesh-eating infection, which is caused by bacteria like group A strep, E. coli, and staph, according to the CDC. Still, around 80,000 people get sick with vibriosis every year and around 100 of them die, the CDC says. It’s estimated that around 52,000 of those cases are caused by eating contaminated food, mostly raw or undercooked shellfish.
Vibrio bacteria usually cause gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. But people with underlying health conditions such as liver disease, diabetes, stomach disorders, or other conditions that weaken the body’s typical immune response are at a higher risk of more serious complications or even death, according to the FDA. Anyone with one of these conditions showing symptoms of a Vibrio infection should get to a doctor ASAP.
So why all the finger-pointing at oysters? They feed by filtering water. If the water is contaminated with bad-guy bacteria, oysters can become contaminated too. There are some 12 different species of Vibrio living in salt or brackish water that oysters might come into contact with.
Swimmers are also at risk, but only if contaminated water gets into an open cut or wound. (Last year, a man died from vibriosis after swimming with a new tattoo.) “The words flesh-eating might make you think that if you touch it, it will degrade your skin on contact, and that’s not true,” Gabby Barbarite, PhD, a Vibrio researcher at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, told Health in a previous interview. “You have to have a pre-existing cut—or you have to eat raw, contaminated seafood or chug a whole lot of contaminated water—for it to get into your bloodstream; it can’t break down healthy, intact skin.”
While that’s certainly a relief, it doesn’t bode well for the raw bar: There’s little you can do to protect yourself other than eat your oysters cooked. Just because you’re dining at a fancy establishment, eating your raw oysters with hot sauce, or chasing them with chardonnay, you’re not safe from bacteria, according to the FDA. Heat is the only thing that will fully destroy those buggers, so order oysters fully cooked. (Cook them at home following a few easy FDA-approved safety tips, and make sure to always wash your hands with soap and water after touching raw shellfish.)
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Oysters are also a major culprit in spreading hepatitis A and norovirus–commonly referred to as the stomach flu. Both infections can cause nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Just a handful of reasons why raw oysters made our list of foods you should never order when you eat out.
Not a shellfish fan to begin with? Remember to keep open wounds away from salt water. And if you get a cut while traipsing around seaside, clean it as soon as possible. “Seek medical attention within four to five hours if [you] see redness or swelling,” or if you have a fever or feel nauseous, signs that the infection has spread, Barbarite said previously. Caught early, Vibrio bacteria can be treated with life-saving antibiotics.