Vibrio vulnificus is a type of bacteria that can cause a fatal infection. You get it from eating uncooked or undercooked shellfish or when seawater enters a wound. Symptoms get worse quickly. They include fever, low blood pressure and painful blisters. Go to the ER immediately if you think you have a Vibrio vulnificus infection.
Vibrio vulnificus is a type of bacteria that can enter your body when you eat uncooked or undercooked shellfish. It can also infect open wounds. It causes a serious form of the illness vibriosis that can quickly lead to sepsis, shock and large, spreading blisters that destroy tissues.
Vibriosis includes illnesses caused by many species of Vibrio bacteria. One type, Vibrio cholerae, causes cholera.
Vibrio vulnificus infections can be fatal if left untreated. Go to the emergency room immediately if you have symptoms of a Vibrio vulnificus infection.
Vibrio vulnificus is rare. There are about 100 to 200 cases reported in the U.S. every year. Infections caused by other species of Vibrio are much more common, with about 80,000 cases of vibriosis total per year.
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Symptoms of Vibrio vulnificus infection come on suddenly, usually fewer than 24 hours after you come in contact with the bacteria. They include:
Vibriosis can also cause gastroenteritis with vomiting and diarrhea.
Vibrio vulnificus bacteria cause the most serious forms of vibriosis. You get it from eating raw shellfish (usually oysters). The incubation period is short — it only takes a few hours for it to spread from your intestines (gut) to your blood and other organs. You can also get it from seawater entering a wound or break in your skin. Most people get vibriosis between May and October, when the water temperatures are warmer (summer months).
Vibrio vulnificus live in warm, mildly salty (brackish) water, usually where areas of fresh water (like rivers) meet salty seawater. Vibrio vulnificus is a halophile, which means “salt-loving.”
People with certain conditions are more likely to get Vibrio vulnificus infections if they’re exposed to the bacteria. Risk factors include:
People whose job or hobbies put them in contact with raw shellfish, or the seawater they live in, are more likely to be exposed to Vibrio vulnificus. Experts aren’t sure why, but men and people assigned male at birth are more likely to get a serious infection than women and people assigned female at birth.
Vibrio vulnificus infections cause severe complications quickly. They include:
A provider diagnoses a Vibrio vulnificus infection by taking a sample of your blood, body fluid or tissues. They’ll send samples to a lab to look for signs of an infection or to try to grow bacteria from the sample. They may test samples of your:
Make sure you tell your provider if you could’ve eaten or come in contact with raw seafood or seawater. Because you can develop serious complications quickly, your provider may start treating you for a Vibrio vulnificus infection before test results come back.
Antibiotics can cure a Vibrio vulnificus infection, especially if caught early. Providers use other treatments to keep skin infections from spreading and to treat conditions like shock. They include:
Antibiotics your provider might prescribe include:
You can reduce your risk of Vibrio vulnificus infection by following safe food and wound care practices, including:
You shouldn’t wait for a Vibrio vulnificus infection to go away on its own. A healthcare provider needs to treat it immediately with antibiotics, wound debridement and, sometimes, amputation. It can be fatal quickly. If you’re treated right away, you can recover from Vibrio.
A study from 2014 suggests that Vibrio vulnificus is fatal in nearly 1 in 5 people infected in the U.S. Earlier studies put the mortality rate higher than 50%. People with underlying illness, like liver disease, and people over the age of 40 may be more likely to have serious complications.
Go to an emergency room immediately if you have symptoms of a Vibrio vulnificus infection. Let your provider know that you’ve had contact with seawater or eaten raw seafood. It’s critical to be treated as soon as possible.
It may be helpful to ask your healthcare provider:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Vibrio vulnificus is a rare but serious bacterial infection. The symptoms get worse quickly and can be fatal in days if left untreated. Immediate treatment with antibiotics can cure a Vibrio vulnificus infection in most people. You can prevent or greatly reduce your risk of infection by following food safety guidelines and avoiding getting seawater into wounds. If you have a chronic illness or job that puts you at higher risk, talk to your healthcare provider about what you can do to protect yourself.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/08/2023.
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