The bacteria thrives in warm waters, and cases increase in the U.S. every summer

By Julie Mazziotta
August 09, 2019 11:44 AM
Locations with reports of flesh-eating bacteria
Martin Schwartz/PEOPLE

Each summer, as the waters along the U.S. coastline heat up, cases of flesh-eating bacteria start to grow. The bacteria — which can be deadly, depending on the type — thrives in water with temperatures that stay above 55 degrees year-round, making the southern portion of the Atlantic coastline a common source of cases.

In 2019, several people or their families have spoken out about contracting a flesh-eating bacteria. In most cases, after a day out on the water in places like Florida, Texas and Maryland, they required a significant hospital stay and often surgery. For three people, they sadly died after contracting the most severe type of flesh-eating bacteria, necrotizing fasciitis — a rare but deadly disease where the bacteria attacks the skin and soft tissue, causing it to decay and leading the organs to shut down.

RELATED: What to Know About Necrotizing Fasciitis — the Flesh-Eating Bacteria Showing Up at Beaches

Of the reported cases, eight occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, where flesh-eating bacteria, especially the vibrio species, have thrived for years because of the year-round warm waters. In April, a man fishing in Ozona, Florida, contracted the bacteria. Two months later, the same thing happened to a 12-year-old girl vacationing in Destin, Florida. Just a few days later, a 77-year-old woman died after walking along Coquina Beach on Anna Maria Island in the same state.

After the Fourth of July weekend, five people developed flesh-eating bacteria — a man in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, a woman in California, and two men who died from necrotizing fasciitis, one in Okaloosa County, Florida and another on Magnolia Beach in Texas.

RELATED VIDEO: 8-Year-Old Dies From Rare Flesh-Eating Bacteria: Doctors ‘Kept Cutting and Hoping’

Cases from other areas include one in Waterloo, Alabama, along the Tennessee River, another at Ocean View Beach near Norfolk, Virginia, one at Colonial Beach in Virginia, on the Potomac River, one on Ocean City, Maryland’s bay side and another from the Green River in Kentucky.

RELATED: 12-Year-Old Girl Gets Life-Threatening Flesh-Eating Disease After Swimming at a Florida Beach

While most cases are in the southern part of the Eastern Seaboard, the flesh-eating bacteria vibrio is spreading north because of climate change, a new study found. Between 2017 and 2018, there were five cases where people contracted the bacteria in the Delaware Bay, or near Delaware and New Jersey.

“We believe that clinicians should be aware of the possibility that V. vulnificus infections are occurring more frequently outside traditional geographic areas,” the authors wrote in the report, according to CBS.

A 68-year-old man said Aug. 7 that he developed flesh-eating bacteria after swimming at Connecticut’s Hammonasset Beach State Park on the Long Island Sound. He contracted necrotizing fasciitis, and doctors had to amputate his right leg after multiple surgeries aimed at saving it were unsuccessful.

RELATED: Flesh-Eating Bacteria Spreads to East Coast Beaches, Infecting People Crabbing in Delaware Bay

Still, the most deadly form, necrotizing fasciitis, is very rare, with just 20,000 cases a year, and people should not spend their lives fearing the water. Chances of contracting it is unlikely, especially if you’re healthy and have a strong immune system, the Centers for Disease Control says.

Practicing good hygiene is crucial in prevention. Make sure to shower after going in the water, and properly care for any and all wounds — which includes keeping them covered with dry, clean bandages. Those with open wounds and active infections should avoid bodies of water, especially swimming pools and hot tubs.

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