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Should swimmers fear flesh-eating bacteria?
Swimming pool outside luxury home with lake view - photo by Jennifer Graham
Sharks are so yesterday. The ocean creatures terrorizing the internet this week are flesh-eating bacteria, which a North Carolina woman says are responsible for a life-threatening infection her mother got after swimming in the Atlantic.

Marsha Barnes Beal of Lumberton, N.C., said on Facebook that her mother is in intensive care at University of North Carolina Medical Center in Chapel Hill because of an infection that has caused her lower leg to turn bright red and swell with blood blisters. Beal said her mother, Bonita Fetterman, was attacked by flesh-eating bacteria after she waded in the surf in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

The post has been shared more than 95,000 times, and some people have remarked in the comments that they're now nervous about going swimming in the ocean. Myrtle Beach officials were quick to respond, saying that they test ocean water for safety twice a week and have found no problems recently. The city also noted that Fetterman's family has not provided any specifics about when or where she was in the water.

The most significant piece of information about Fetterman's condition may be something that wasn't on Facebook. Fetterman's granddaughter told WMBF News of Myrtle Beach that her grandmother cut her leg on a chair on the balcony of her hotel prior to going in the water.

Flesh-eating bacteria sounds like something out of a horror movie, but it exists: Its medical name is necrotizing fasciitis, and it's a fast-spreading infection that destroys soft tissue and can lead to amputations or death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When caught quickly, antibiotics or surgical removal of dead tissue can stop the infection's spread.

The condition occurs when bacteria enter the body through cuts, scrapes, burns, insect bites or puncture wounds. But the condition is extremely rare in people with strong immune systems, the CDC says. People more likely to be affected are those who have diabetes, kidney disease, cancer or some other type of condition that affects the immune system.

The CDC also offers this advice: "Avoid spending time in whirlpools, hot tubs, swimming pools, and natural bodies of water (e.g., lakes, rivers, oceans) if you have an open wound or skin infection."

While Fetterman's infection could have come from the chair on which she cut her leg, not the ocean, her story is a good reminder for anyone going swimming to check for open wounds before entering any type of water.

Even water that looks sparkling clean, like that of a hotel pool, can be teeming with microscopic creatures that can make you and your children sick. In an investigative report on "Today" last year, NBC correspondent Jeff Rossen had samples from public pools and water parks analyzed and found total coliform, fecal matter and E. coli.

And chlorine doesn't completely eliminate the risk and can become a problem itself if chlorine levels are too high, which is why some health officials encourage parents to use inexpensive chlorine test strips to test water in public places before allowing their children to go in.

The website Maui Now says after getting a cut, you should wash it with soap and water (and if dirt is involved, hydrogen peroxide), then keep it out of water for at least 48 hours to allow the skin to close up.

If you do go swimming with a cut or abrasion, at the very least, cover it with a waterproof bandage or two. And when you come out of the water, clean the cut with an antiseptic and apply antibiotic ointment and a fresh bandage, Maui Now reported.

The CDC, however, would prefer you just find something else to do if there's an opening in your skin. "Dont swim with open cuts, abrasions, or wounds," the agency says.
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