As if shark attacks weren’t a big enough summer worry for state residents, on Friday, July 28, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) sent out a press release asking North Carolinians to be aware of the potential dangers of having wounds or cuts exposed to saltwater or brackish water.

The warning comes following three deaths in the state due to “Vibrio” infections.  That bacteria is normally found in warm seawater or brackish water – that is, mixed salt and fresh water.

A small cut exposed to the bacteria can lead to death.

Most of the cases in North Carolina are reported in the warmest months – June through September. Vibrio cases are still rare in the state. However, infections can cause severe illness and, when the infection does hit, it leads to death in an alarming percentage of cases: Since 2019, eight of the 47 reported cases in North Carolina residents have been fatal.

The three most recent deaths of state residents all occurred in July 2023. Two of those three cases were from scratches exposed to brackish water.

The third case also had brackish water exposure in North Carolina, however, the person also consumed personally caught seafood – another way to become infected.

According to state health officials, “While healthy individuals typically develop mild illness, Vibrio infections can be severe or life threatening for people with weakened immune systems or chronic liver disease. If you start to see signs of a skin infection after contact with brackish waters or seawater, you should contact your health care provider. Other symptoms can include diarrhea, stomach pain, vomiting, nausea, fever and chills.”

Following these suggestions will reduce your likelihood of infection:

  • If you have a wound (including from a recent surgery, piercing or tattoo), stay out of saltwater or brackish water if possible.
  • Cover your wound with a waterproof bandage if it could come into contact with saltwater, brackish water or with raw or undercooked seafood.
  • If you sustain any type of wound while in salt or brackish water  – like cutting your hand on a boat propeller – immediately get out of the water and wash with soap and water.