Safe Swimming Also Means Protecting Yourself from Vibrio

If you work or play in the ocean, Chesapeake Bay and the rivers that empty into them, it’s important to learn how to avoid Vibrio. There are about a dozen Vibrio bacteria that can cause illness that can be severe.  

While wound infections are not common in Virginia, it’s good to protect yourself. You can also get sick from Vibrio if you eat raw oysters that have the bacteria.  

Anyone can get sick from Vibrio. People with weakened immune systems and pre-existing conditions are at greater risk for severe illness and even death.  

You can protect yourself by staying out of the water if you have an open wound. If you have a cut or wound that is splashed by salt or brackish water, wash it immediately with soap and clean water. Follow up with an antibiotic ointment and watch for signs of infection.  

If you handle raw shellfish or other items such as fishhooks, crab pots or fish with sharp spines that have been exposed to salt or brackish water, wear protective items such as gloves. Water shoes can protect your feet in areas with shells or creatures such as crabs that can pinch.   

If you eat raw oysters that have the bacteria on them, you could have diarrhea and vomiting. People with pre-existing conditions could have more severe symptoms.   

People who handle fish for a living or as pets in home aquariums also can get sick from Fish-Handler’s disease. Handling shellfish, tropical fish, cleaning aquariums, swimming pools, fishing, catching lobsters, and similar activities with a cut or scrape can allow bacteria to make you sick.  

Almost any creature that lives in salt, fresh or brackish water can spread this disease. Look for fish or other creatures with visible surface lesions and don’t pick them up with bare hands or eat them.   

Cooked fish and other seafood are not believed to cause Fish-Handler’s disease.  

To learn more about Vibrio, Fish-Handler’s disease and healthy and safe swimming, visit the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) website.  

VDH also monitors beaches by sampling the water from May to September for the bacteria enterococci. By itself, enterococci won’t harm you. If it’s found in the water at high levels, it could mean that there are also other harmful bacteria that can make you sick. Swimming advisories are issued when the levels are high. To see a list of swimming advisories, visit the VDH Swimming Advisories and Monitored Beaches Map.