Beach Water Bacteria: Frequently Asked Questions
Beach water bacteria is often a hot topic of conversation, especially during the summer. Unfortunately, sometimes those conversations misrepresent or confuse facts. The Galveston County Health District (GCHD) is happy to provide answers to frequently asked questions while clarifying the difference between Texas Beach Watch advisories and the unrelated natural Vibrio vulnificus “flesh-eating” bacteria.
Texas Beach Watch
What is Texas Beach Watch?
Texas Beach Watch is part of a national program that tests hundreds of recreational swimming locations in the United States for a bacterial indicator called enterococcus. There are more than 150 testing sites along the entire Texas Gulf coast, including 52 in Galveston County. Of the testing sites in Galveston County, 36 are located on Galveston Island, 16 on Bolivar Peninsula and one on the Texas City Dike.
What is enterococcus and how does it get into the Gulf?
Enterococcus is a bacteria naturally found in the intestine and waste of all mammals, including humans. Rain frequently washes animal and human waste into waterways that eventually flow into the Gulf of Mexico, causing a brief spike in the enterococcus level.
How often are Galveston County sites tested?
The Galveston County Health District routinely tests the 52 sites in the county throughout the entire year. During beach season, each of Galveston County’s 52 testing sites are individually tested at least once a week. When a sample comes back with a high level of enterococcus, the site is tested daily until the level subsides, which typically occurs within 48 hours. During non-beach season, the sites are tested bi-weekly.
When is a Texas Beach Watch advisory issued?
An advisory is issued when the level of enterococcus exceeds 104 cfu/100ml, the national standard for safe swimming. An advisory is an informational tool and does not close the affected beach. Advisories are issued for individual beach testing sites, meaning an individual advisory does not affect all area beaches. Texas Beach Watch advisories NOT related to Vibrio "flesh eating" bacteria.
How long do Texas Beach Watch advisories last?
Advisories typically last 48 hours. When a site tests high, it’s re-sampled the following morning. That sample is then sent to the lab and the result comes in the following afternoon. This is why advisories typically only last 48 hours. It's rare for a site to have two consecutive high results.
How do I know if a beach is under a Texas Beach Watch advisory?
Advisories are marked with signs on the affected beaches. Additionally, www.texasbeachwatch.org has an interactive map that shows test site statuses for the entire state. Users may also sign up for e-mail alerts at that website. Galveston County advisories are also listed at www.gchd.org/beachwatch.
Should I swim at a beach that’s under Texas Beach Watch advisory?
If a beach is under advisory, the level of enterococcus is high enough where it could cause illness if it enters the body. Bacteria primarily enters the body through ingestion or open cuts or wounds. If you’re a healthy adult and don’t ingest beach water or allow it to get into open cuts or wounds, you’re unlikely to become ill. If you want to avoid an advisory, it’s often as simple as moving a few blocks to a beach that’s not under advisory.
Vibrio Vulnificus “Flesh-eating” Bacteria
What is Vibrio vulnificus “flesh-eating” bacteria?
Vibrio vulnificus is a bacteria that’s naturally present in salt and brackish water around the world. The bacteria is not associated with pollution and is not unique to the Gulf of Mexico, Texas or Galveston. Infections from Vibrio vulnificus are rare and typically affect people with pre-existing health conditions who had open cuts or sores when they came into contact with the bacteria.
How common are Vibrio vulnificus infections?
More than 10 million people visited Texas beaches in 2015 and 35 cases of Vibrio vulnificus were reported. That means less than 0.00035% of beachgoers were affected. By comparison, 100 times as many people were killed in vehicle crashes in Texas during the same year.
Who is at risk for Vibrio vulnificus infections?
People with diabetes, liver disease, cancer or other immune suppressing conditions who swim in natural bodies of water with open cuts or sores are at an increased risk for Vibrio vulnificus infection. Healthy people are extraordinarily less likely to get an infection than the ill.
What precautions should people take to protect against infection?
Swimming in natural bodies of water anywhere comes with risk. To reduce the risk, beachgoers with open cuts or sores, especially those with pre-existing conditions, should avoid swimming or check with their doctor first.
People who suffer cuts while in natural bodies of water anywhere should immediately leave the water, thoroughly clean the wound and do not return until the wound heals. It’s important to keep an eye on the area for infection or swelling. If either occur, medical attention should be obtained immediately. Vibrio vulnificus infections are treatable, especially if caught early.
Wearing water shoes while swimming and gloves or waders while fishing can help prevent cuts.
Is it safe to go to the beach?
Going to a beach is safe for the vast majority of people. As with any activity that involves Mother Nature, there is always going to be risk and groups of people who are more vulnerable than others. People should always take precautions in natural bodies of water, especially those with pre-exiting conditions or open cuts or sores.
People are much more likely to be killed in a car accident driving to a beach than they are to get an infection from the water.
How serious are Vibrio vulnificus infections?
Most people with a mild infection recover with no lasting effects. However, people with pre-existing conditions who develop infection can get seriously ill and need intensive care or limb amputation. In very extreme cases it can be fatal.
There is a wealth of information about Texas Beach Watch, as well as a list of active addivories at www.gchd.org/beachwatch. Information about Vibrio vulnificus can be found at www.gchd.org/beachwater.