Never Go in the Ocean If You Notice This, Experts Warn

Making this one mistake can lead to serious infection, health authorities say.

As the weather warms up and COVID restrictions are lifted, you may find yourself eager to head  to the beach this summer. But while your fun in the sun may be long overdue, experts say that there's one time you should never go in the ocean. Officials at the Virginia Department of Public Health (VDH) have issued a health advisory for beachgoers this summer—and if you don't heed it, you're risking a potentially fatal infection. Read on to learn the surprising sign that you should steer clear of the ocean this summer.

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Experts warn to avoid the ocean if you have an open wound.

Cut knee on beach

While folk wisdom may claim that salt water can help heal cuts or abrasions, many experts say to avoid swimming if you've got an open wound. In particular, the VDH has issued a warning against swimming when injured due to the spread of Vibrio bacteria, which can cause serious soft-tissue skin infections.

Harmful microorganisms are found in "lakes, rivers, along the coast, and in other bodies of water," Virginia's health officials warn. They urge particular caution in "brackish and warm sea water," where Vibrio spreads naturally.

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Cases are at their peak right now.

doctor has bad news for male patient at hospital

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that every year in the U.S., roughly 80,000 people contract vibriosis, the disease spread by Vibrio bacteria. On average, one hundred people die from Vibrio-related infections each year, the health authority warns.

The CDC also notes that the majority of infections occur between May and October, when water temperatures rise—meaning that right now, cases are at their annual peak.

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People with compromised immune systems tend to suffer worse outcomes.

close up of legs walking into the ocean

While anyone can contract a vibriosis infection from contaminated water, certain underlying conditions can elevate your risk, the VDH cautions. "Persons with low immune systems, cancer, diabetes, liver disease, and other chronic conditions" are at a higher risk of the bacteria entering the bloodstream and causing complications or even death.

You can also contract vibriosis from eating undercooked seafood.

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In addition to the risk of contracting vibriosis while swimming, the VDH also warns that you can become infected by eating raw or undercooked seafood—especially oysters. "Because oysters feed by filtering water, bacteria can concentrate in their tissues," the CDC explains. Those with the underlying conditions listed above should be particularly cautious about their seafood selection.

"Most Vibrio infections from oysters result in only diarrhea and vomiting. However, some infections, such as those caused by Vibrio vulnificus, can cause more severe illness, including bloodstream infections and severe blistering skin lesions," the CDC warns. The health authority notes that some infections require intensive care or limb amputations, and between 15 and 30 percent of cases involving the V. vulnificus strain are fatal.

If you notice redness, swelling, or pain at the site of a wound after swimming, seek medical attention immediately. Early intervention, including treatment with antibiotics, can improve survival rates and speed up recovery.

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Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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