As we put the summer behind us and settle into fall, many families are looking forward to sneaking in a quick trip to the beach before cold weather arrives. Fall is a beautiful time at the beach – with its deep blue skies and less oppressive temperatures and humidity. But before you pack up the SUV and head for the Coast, there is a potential threat you should be aware of and know how to prepare for – water-borne bacterial skin infections, some of which can be quite serious.
Summer of 2019 has seen a marked rise of serious bacterial skin infections, which appear to have been contracted in American coastal waters, from the Gulf Coast to the Eastern Seaboard and California. During the summer, as the waters along the U.S. coastline heat up, cases of bacterial infections increase. Because the bacteria – which can be deadly, depending on the type – thrive in water with temperatures that stay above 55 degrees year-round, the southern portion of the Atlantic coastline is a common source of cases. While the vast majority of cases are not life threatening if treated promptly and properly, as climate change causes the oceans’ water temperatures to rise, the incidence of water-borne bacterial skin infections, including serious cases, is on the rise and is moving north. This year, cases of deadly flesh-eating bacterial infections were not only found in the Gulf Coast region and along Florida’s east coast, they were also reported in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
The most common form of water-borne skin infections fall within a medical condition called cellulitis that affects the skin’s inner layers. Cellulitis usually occurs when the bacteria enter the body through a small break in the skin, such as a small cut, minor scape or even an insect bite. Two kinds of bacteria that commonly cause cellulitis are streptococcus (Strep) and staphylococcus (Staph). While everyone experiences symptoms of these infections differently, most often the signs of cellulitis include:
• Redness of the skin
• Swelling around the wound
• Warm to the touch
• Red streaks from the original site
If these symptoms are present, one should seek medical attention immediately – don’t wait to return home from vacation. The infection can spread and if left untreated can evolve into a serious condition that may require hospitalization. Treatments include oral or intravenous antibiotics, keeping the area clean and dry, rest, topical antibiotics, and pain medications if needed. A physician will need to take blood and skin samples to confirm the diagnosis and the type of bacteria that is present. A bacterial culture can identify the organism causing the condition and indicate the most effective antibiotic.
An extremely dangerous, and potentially fatal skin condition called necrotizing fasciitis (commonly known as flesh-eating disease), can also develop when certain types of bacteria found in coastal waters enter the body through a break in the skin. People don’t “catch” flesh-eating bacteria, necrotizing fasciitis is a complication or a symptom of a bacterial infection. Several bacteria common in Gulf Coast waters can cause necrotizing fasciitis. One such bacteria, is known as vibrio vulnificus, however group A streptococcus is believed to be the most common cause of the condition. Symptoms can be confusing and initially can mimic those of less serious infections, but it is important to know what to look for and to act extremely quickly to get medical attention for this life-threatening condition. Necrotizing fasciitis often spreads very rapidly.
Symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis include:
• A red or swollen area of skin that spreads quickly
• Severe pain, including pain beyond the area of the skin that is red or swollen
• Ulcers, blisters, or black spots on the skin
• Changes in the color of the skin
• Puss or oozing from the infected area
• Fatigue (tiredness)
• Diarrhea or nausea
Necrotizing fasciitis can be a very serious illness that may require care in a hospital. Antibiotics and surgery are typically the first lines of defense if a doctor suspects a patient has necrotizing fasciitis. People with weakened immune systems are at greater risk of developing the condition, including individuals with diabetes, kidney disease, scarring (cirrhosis) of the liver and cancer.
It is important to keep in mind that necrotizing fasciitis, is very rare, and people should not spend their lives afraid to go in the water. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chances of developing or having complications from necrotizing fasciitis are very low, especially if you’re healthy and have a strong immune system.
Practicing good hygiene is crucial to prevention of water-borne skin infections. Beach goers should make sure to shower after going in the water and carefully monitoring any skin abrasions to look for signs of infection. This July the Department of Health of Orange County, Florida recommended that residents and visitors to the state’s beaches cover open skin cuts with a waterproof bandage before interacting with the water. It advised those with open wounds and active infections to avoid bodies of water, especially swimming pools and hot tubs. Further it recommended that individuals with chronic conditions that can compromise the immune system consider enjoying the sun and sand but stay out of the water as a precaution.
Fear of water-borne infections doesn’t have to mean you forego your family trip to the beach. By being aware of potential dangers, following the advice of professionals, and taking some common-sense measures to avoid exposure, you can safely enjoy a beach getaway and avoid returning home with an unwelcome and unhealthy intruder.