There Are Flesh-Eating Bacteria Lurking in Bad Oysters — And They Could Kill You

Oysters on the half shell are a summertime favorite. There’s something about those succulent, raw shellfish that screams summertime. They’re trendy, too — “raw bars” are commonly found at upscale restaurants. But what if we told you some raw oysters are harboring a deadly, flesh-eating bacteria? It’s true, and as the oceans warm up, it’s becoming more common.

In January 2018, a Texas woman made headlines when she died from the bacteria after eating raw oysters along the Louisiana coast. The woman had purchased raw oysters from a Louisiana market and died after battling the bacteria for three weeks. In July 2018, a man died in Sarasota, Florida just two days after consuming raw oysters at a local restaurant. The cause of death in both cases: Vibrio vulnificus.

Raw oysters

Raw oysters can be deadly — especially in the summertime. | ValentynVolkov/Getty Images

What is Vibrio vulnificus?

Vibrio vulnificus is a flesh-eating bacteria that enters the body through either ingestion, such as consuming food with the bacteria, or through the skin, such as entering the water with an open wound. The most common symptoms are vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Typically, the symptoms occur within 24 hours and usually last about three days. But in those with weakened immune systems, the illness can become severe.

Vibrio bacteria is very common; about 80,000 people contract the bacteria each year, with only about 0.1% being fatal. But the specific type found in oysters, Vibrio vulnificus, is less common, and about 15-30% of cases are fatal. If you have liver disease, cancer, diabetes, or HIV, the CDC suggests you may be more at risk for developing a severe illness. Also, if you’ve had stomach surgery recently, the disease may be life threatening. And recently, the bacteria have been popping up more and more in raw oysters.

Why are oysters so at-risk?

Oysters are at a high risk for the bacteria because they feed by filtering water, which is how the bacteria become present in the tissues of the oysters you eat. With Vibrio vulnificus, the vomiting and diarrhea are common, but more serious problems, such as severe bloodstream infections and blistering skin lesions, are also common. And simply looking at an oyster is not enough to know if it harbors the bacteria.

You can get sick from the oysters at any time of year, but the summer months see more infections because water temperatures are warmer. Warmer temperatures mean bacteria can thrive. The only way to ensure prevention is to cook the oysters thoroughly. Some believe drinking alcohol with raw oysters or squeezing lemon over them is enough, but that’s not the case. The CDC stresses that oysters must be cooked thoroughly in order to be considered safe.

According to Florida Health, the state saw 46 cases of Vibrio vulnificus in 2016, which resulted in 10 deaths. 2017 saw 49 cases and 11 deaths. And the CDC estimates there are about 205 cases of this specific Vibrio bacteria each year in the United States, with anywhere from 30-60 deaths. Don’t assume you’ll be fine simply because you have a strong immune system. While those with weaker immune systems tend to have more severe cases, the infection can take a toll on anyone. Avoid ordering seafood “on the half shell” to keep you and your family safe.

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