Anglers, crabbers, swimmers, and just about anyone in the Chesapeake Bay region with cuts or nicks on their skin, or doing things that could cause such skin damage, need to be careful around the water. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) current forecast shows the presence of the flesh-eating Vibrio vulnificus bacteria in the Chesapeake Bay region. According to their map, waters near the Upper Bay and the Chesapeake’s main tributaries, including the Potomac River, have a 100 percent chance of holding the bacteria. Warm water seems to exacerbate the risk.

Many people associate a vibrio infection with eating tainted oysters, but according to Chesapeake Bay Magazine’s Bay Bulletin, about one-third of the cases in the last five years came from water contact. In 2019, the latest year of complete data, there were 95 cases of vibrio in Maryland, and 31 of them didn’t come from food.

What makes the presence of Vibrio vulnificus bacteria particularly worrisome is that an infection can occur under seemingly benign circumstances. According to experts, the infection doesn’t require cutting your hand on an oyster or crab shell, getting finned by a fish, or slicing a finger on a gill plate. Contact between water holding the bacteria and any cut or wound puts you at risk.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Vibrio vulnificus, can cause life-threatening wound infections, many requiring intensive care or limb amputations. Roughly 1 in 5 people die from a vibrio infection, sometimes within days of becoming ill. The flesh around open wounds dies, a situation properly termed necrotizing fasciitis. People at increased risk for infection need to be especially careful. Reduce chances of a Vibrio wound infection by following these CDC recommendations:

  • If you have a wound (including from a recent surgery, piercing, or tattoo), stay out of saltwater or brackish water, if possible. This includes wading at the beach.
  • Cover your wound with a waterproof bandage if it could come into contact with saltwater, brackish water, or raw or undercooked seafood and its juices. This contact can happen during everyday activities, such as swimming, fishing, or walking on the beach. It could also happen when a hurricane or storm surge causes flooding.
  • Wash wounds and cuts thoroughly with soap and water after they have contact with saltwater, brackish water, raw seafood, or its juices.

Signs and symptoms of Vibrio vulnificus infection include:

  • Watery diarrhea, often accompanied by stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting, and fever
  • For bloodstream infection: fever, chills, dangerously low blood pressure, and blistering skin lesions
  • For wound infection, which may spread to the rest of the body: fever, redness, pain, swelling, warmth, discoloration, and discharge (leaking fluids).

NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science offers a 48-hour forecast map that predicts the probability of vibrio’s presence. It’s a worthwhile tool for anglers and watermen or even recreational swimmers to use. If you are going to go fishing or will be near the water in any of the affected areas, follow these precautions from Department of the Environment spokesman Jay Apperson:

  • Avoid water contact if you have any skin wounds.
  • If water contact cannot be avoided, cover wounds with waterproof bandages.
  • Wear water shoes to avoid cuts and scrapes.
  • Wear gloves or use extra care when handling crab pots or other equipment.
  • If you get a cut or a scrape, clean it immediately with soap and clean water after contact. If soap and clean water are not available, clean the wound with hand sanitizer then wash as soon as possible.
  • Always shower after swimming in natural waters and wash hands before handling food or eating.
  • If you do get a wound with unusual redness, swelling, or drainage, seek medical attention immediately and tell your doctor if you’ve recently come in contact with brackish or saltwater.