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Foodborne Illness: Vibrio Vulnificus

British Columbia Specific Information

Foodborne illness, also called food poisoning, is caused by eating and drinking contaminated food. Bacteria, like Vibrio, can cause foodborne illness and make you sick. There are several types of vibrios that are found naturally in water, fish, and shellfish. To learn more about the different types of vibrios and how to avoid getting sick, visit Healthy Canadians – Vibrio.

If you have questions about food safety or symptoms related to foodborne illness, you may also call 8-1-1 to speak with a registered nurse or registered dietitian. Our nurses are available anytime, every day of the year, and our dietitians are available Monday to Friday 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., or you can Email a HealthLinkBC Dietitian.

Condition Basics

What is Vibrio vulnificus foodborne illness?

Vibrio vulnificus
foodborne illness is caused by Vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium that lives in warm seawater. The condition is rare.

What causes it?

Vibrio vulnificus foodborne illness occurs when you eat seafood infected with the bacteria or you have an open wound that is exposed to them. The bacteria are frequently found in oysters and other shellfish in warm coastal waters during the summer months. People who have weak immune systems, especially those with long-term (chronic) liver disease, are at greater risk for this condition than other people.

What are the symptoms?

In healthy people, Vibrio vulnificus foodborne illness can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal (belly) pain. In people who have weak immune systems, the bacteria can infect the bloodstream, causing a severe and life-threatening illness. Symptoms include fever and chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock), and blistering skin wounds. The infection is especially dangerous to people who have long-term (chronic) liver disease.

If an open wound is exposed to the bacteria (such as from warm seawater), sores may develop. People with weak immune systems are at risk for the bacteria moving into the bloodstream.

How is it diagnosed?

Vibrio vulnificus foodborne illness is diagnosed based on a medical history and a physical examination. Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms, foods you have recently eaten, and your work and home environments. If you have eaten raw seafood, especially oysters, your doctor may do a stool, wound, or blood culture.

How is Vibrio vulnificus foodborne illness treated?

You treat Vibrio vulnificus foodborne illness by managing complications until it passes. Dehydration caused by diarrhea and vomiting is the most common complication. In people who have weak immune systems, or in people who have severe symptoms, antibiotics may be used.

To prevent dehydration, take frequent sips of a rehydration drink (such as Pedialyte). Try to drink a cup of water or rehydration drink for each large, loose stool you have. Soda and fruit juices have too much sugar and not enough of the important electrolytes that are lost during diarrhea, and they should not be used to rehydrate.

Try to stay with your normal diet as much as possible. Eating your usual diet will help you to get enough nutrition. Doctors believe that eating a normal diet will also help you feel better faster. But try to avoid foods that are high in fat and sugar. Also avoid spicy foods, alcohol, and coffee for 2 days after all symptoms have disappeared.

How can you prevent it?

The best way to prevent Vibrio vulnificus foodborne illness is to not eat raw oysters or other raw shellfish and to cook all shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels) thoroughly.

Boil shucked oysters for at least 3 minutes or fry them in oil for at least 10 minutes at 191°C (375°F). For shellfish in the shell, either:

  • Boil until the shells open and continue boiling for 5 more minutes, or
  • Steam until the shells open and then continue cooking for 9 more minutes.

Do not eat those shellfish that do not open during cooking.

You should also:

  • Avoid cross-contamination of cooked seafood and other foods with raw seafood and juices from raw seafood. Don't prepare them in the same place. And don't use the same cutting board when preparing them.
  • Eat shellfish immediately after cooking, and refrigerate leftovers.
  • Avoid exposing open wounds or broken skin to warm saltwater or brackish water or to raw shellfish harvested from such waters.
  • Wear protective clothing, such as gloves, when you handle raw shellfish.

Credits

Current as of:
July 1, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine