Blake Northrop holding a redfish

Avoid flesh-eating bacteria, but keep saltwater fishing

As medical students who like to fish, one of our favorite pastimes is trying our own luck in the Galveston waters when we aren’t busy hitting the books or working in the hospital. Fish these waters long enough, chances are you might hear the term “flesh-eating bacteria” tossed around by fellow fishermen. Relevant to both anglers and beach goers, Vibrio vulnificus is often the culprit bacteria for these saltwater-associated infections.

Despite the alarming nickname, awareness and proper preventative measures can allow us to safely enjoy saltwater activities while protecting ourselves from Vibrio infections. 

Just as many of us find comfort in the Gulf Coast, so does Vibrio vulnificus. The bacteria makes these warmer waters home and particularly thrives in warm marine environments such as saltwater marshes, wetlands and coastal waters. Because of this, infections are most common from May to October.

The bacteria often concentrates in the tissues of shellfish, so a common source of infection is eating raw or undercooked shellfish. Other causes include contact of open wounds with the bacteria, usually via contaminated shellfish or contaminated ocean water. Infections with Vibrio vulnificus can range from vomiting and diarrhea, localized skin infections to life-threatening skin infections or bloodstream infections. 

So, who exactly is at higher risk for severe infection? People with liver disease—such as cirrhosis or hepatitis—and those who are immunocompromised because of cancer, AIDS or immune suppressing medications are at a significantly higher risk. 

Protecting yourself from these types of infections is straightforward. Avoid eating raw or undercooked shellfish, and avoid contact with saltwater if you have an open wound, including fresh tattoos or recent piercing. If you cannot avoid contact with saltwater, apply a waterproof bandage to the wound to minimize contact with the saltwater. 

If you sustain a wound while in the water, clean it thoroughly with soap and water as soon as possible. Keeping soap and clean water on deck can be particularly handy in the event you sustain a wound while enjoying the waters without a bathroom nearby. It is extremely important to seek medical attention for infected wounds early since Vibrio vulnificus infections can progress and become severe very quickly.

Taking these measures can help ensure you can maximize your time while exploring the Galveston waters and do so in a safe manner. Happy fishing.


Blake Northrop, 4th-year medical student at UTMB & member of Fishing Club at UTMB
Vishaal Sakthivelnathan, 3rd-year medical student at UTMB & member of Fishing Club at UTMB
Dylan Weaver, 4th-year medical student at UTMB & member of Fishing Club at UTMB