Vibrio Vulnificus Infection: Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Catherine Konopka

Catherine has taught various college biology courses for 5 years at both 2-year and 4-year institutions. She has a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology.

Have you ever wondered why you shouldn't eat raw seafood, or why sometimes beaches close in the summer? In this lesson, you will learn about one bacteria that could be responsible for both.

A Case of Vibrio vulnificus

In 2013, a Florida man went to the emergency room with what he thought was a normal spider bite that had become infected. Two days later that man was dead. In 2006, a Hawaiian man fell into some water contaminated from a nearby sewage treatment plant. Six days later, he died from multiple organ failure. In 2005, in the two weeks following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, five people died after wading in the floodwaters.

All had died from an infection by a bacterium called Vibrio vulnificus. It is related to a species of bacteria that causes cholera (Vibrio cholerae). And while infections from either are life threatening, V. vulnificus infections have a much higher mortality rate. This is most likely because we just don't know that much about the organism. V. vulnificus was only first discovered and isolated in 1976. This might not seem that recent, but its cousin, V. cholerae was first discovered in the mid-1800s!

How Do You Become Infected?

V. vulnificus are bratwurst-shaped, gram-negative bacteria that like to live in warm salty water. Gram-negative refers to its thin cell wall, which is surrounded by a protective outer membrane. The bacteria swim about using their multiple tail-like flagella. Because they prefer to live in warm and salty environments, they have been found in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, South Pacific, Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean.

Vibrio vulnificus
Vibrio vulnificus

There are two routes that V. vulnificus can enter your body.

  • The mouth: You can ingest the bacteria by eating raw contaminated shellfish, typically oysters.
  • Openings in the skin: If you swim in infested water, bacteria can enter through an open wound.

If the bacteria stay contained within the digestive tract or the skin, the likelihood of survival is 75%. However, V. vulnificus can leave the GI tract and skin, enter the blood stream and spread throughout the body. When it does this, it is now considered a systemic infection or sepsis. The chance of surviving a systemic V. vulnificus infection is just 50%. If you have liver disease, like hepatitis or cirrhosis, or your immune system is compromised, the likelihood your infection becomes systemic increases drastically.

Symptoms and Treatment

Symptoms of a V. vulnificus infection typically start to appear in 24-48 hours after ingestion or contact with contaminated water. These include

  • Fever and chills
  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
  • Skin blisters
  • Shock

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